, Volume 95, Issue 6, pp 569–576 | Cite as

Why do Manduca sexta feed from white flowers? Innate and learnt colour preferences in a hawkmoth

  • Joaquín Goyret
  • Michael Pfaff
  • Robert A. Raguso
  • Almut Kelber
Short Communication


Flower colour is an important signal used by flowering plants to attract pollinators. Many anthophilous insects have an innate colour preference that is displayed during their first foraging bouts and which could help them locate their first nectar reward. Nevertheless, learning capabilities allow insects to switch their colour preferences with experience and thus, to track variation in floral nectar availability. Manduca sexta, a crepuscular hawkmoth widely studied as a model system for sensory physiology and behaviour, visits mostly white, night-blooming flowers lacking UV reflectance throughout its range in the Americas. Nevertheless, the spectral sensitivity of the feeding behaviour of naïve moths shows a narrow peak around 450 nm wavelengths, suggesting an innate preference for the colour blue. Under more natural conditions (i.e. broader wavelength reflectance) than in previous studies, we used dual choice experiments with blue- and white-coloured feeders to investigate the innate preference of naïve moths and trained different groups to each colour to evaluate their learning capabilities. We confirmed the innate preference of M. sexta for blue and found that these moths were able to switch colour preferences after training experience. These results unequivocally demonstrate that M. sexta moths innately prefer blue when presented against white flower models and offer novel experimental evidence supporting the hypothesis that learning capabilities could be involved in their foraging preferences, including their widely observed attraction to white flowers in nature.


Innate preference Learning Lepidoptera Sensory ecology Vision 



We thank Trey Franklin (USC) and Frank Bleasdale (D&D Farms) for providing tobacco seedlings, three anonymous referees for constructive comments on earlier versions of the manuscript, and Poppy Markwell and Annie Simonin for helping to rear the moths. We greatly appreciate funds granted by NSF (IOB-0444163) and the Swedish Research Council. Experiments comply with the current laws of the countries in which they were performed.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joaquín Goyret
    • 1
    • 3
  • Michael Pfaff
    • 2
  • Robert A. Raguso
    • 1
    • 3
  • Almut Kelber
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of South CarolinaColumbiaUSA
  2. 2.Department of Cell and Organism Biology, Vision GroupLund UniversityLundSweden
  3. 3.Department of Neurobiology and BehaviorCornell UniversityIthacaUSA

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