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Keywords:

  • acoustic startle response;
  • island biology;
  • predator release;
  • regressive evolution;
  • sensory ecology

Abstract

Most moths use ears solely to detect the echolocation calls of hunting, insectivorous bats and evoke evasive flight manoeuvres. This singularity of purpose predicts that this sensoribehavioural network will regress if the selective force that originally maintained it is removed. We tested this with noctuid moths from the islands of Tahiti and Moorea, sites where bats have never existed and where an earlier study demonstrated that the ears of endemic species resemble those of adventives although partially reduced in sensitivity. To determine if these moths still express the anti-bat defensive behaviour of acoustic startle response (ASR) we compared the nocturnal flight times of six endemic to six adventive species in the presence and absence of artificial bat echolocation sounds. Whereas all of the adventive species reduced their flight times when exposed to ultrasound, only one of the six endemic species did so. These differences were significant when tested using a phylogenetically based pairwise comparison and when comparing effect sizes. We conclude that the absence of bats in this habitat has caused the neural circuitry that normally controls the ASR behaviour in bat-exposed moths to become decoupled from the functionally vestigial ears of endemic Tahitian moths.