Host selection in phytophagous insects: a new explanation for learning in adults


  • J. P. Cunningham,

  • S. A. West,

  • M. P. Zalucki


Insect learning can change the preferences an egg laying female displays towards different host plant species. Current hypotheses propose that learning may be advantageous in adult host selection behaviour through improved recognition, accuracy or selectivity in foraging. In this paper, we present a hypothesis for when learning can be advantageous without such improvements in adult host foraging. Specifically, that learning can be an advantageous strategy for egg laying females when larvae must feed on more than one plant in order to complete development, if the fitness of larvae is reduced when they switch to a different host species. Here, larvae benefit from developing on the most abundant host species, which is the most likely choice of host for an adult insect which increases its preference for a host species through learning. The hypothesis is formalised with a mathematical model and we provide evidence from studies on the behavioural ecology of a number of insect species which demonstrate that the assumptions of this hypothesis may frequently be fulfilled in nature. We discuss how multiple mechanisms may convey advantages in insect learning and that benefits to larval development, which have so far been overlooked, should be considered in explanations for the widespread occurrence of learning.