Heliconiini butterflies can learn time-dependent reward associations

M. Wyatt Toure*, Fletcher J Young, Owen McMillan, Stephen H Montgomery*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)
84 Downloads (Pure)


For many pollinators, flowers provide predictable temporal schedules of resource availability, meaning an ability to learn time-dependent information could be widely beneficial. However, this ability has only been demonstrated in a handful of species. Observations of Heliconius butterflies suggest that they may have an ability to form time-dependent foraging preferences. Heliconius are unique among butterflies in actively collecting pollen, a dietary behaviour linked to spatiotemporally faithful ‘trap-line’ foraging. Time-dependency of foraging preferences is hypothesised to allow Heliconius to exploit temporal predictability in alternative pollen resources. Here, we provide the first experimental evidence in support of this hypothesis, demonstrating that Heliconius hecale can learn opposing colour preferences in two time periods. This shift in preference is robust to the order of presentation, suggesting that preference is tied to the time of day and not due to ordinal or interval learning. However, this ability is not limited to Heliconius, as previously hypothesised, but also present in a related genus of non-pollen feeding butterflies. This demonstrates time learning likely pre-dates the origin of pollen-feeding and may be prevalent across butterflies with less specialised foraging behaviours.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages5
JournalBiology Letters
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 23 Sept 2020


  • contextual learning
  • circadian memory
  • cognitive ecology
  • Lepidoptera


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