Journal of Insect Behavior

, Volume 28, Issue 1, pp 77–87 | Cite as

The Role of Olfactory Cues for the Search Behavior of a Specialist and Generalist Butterfly

  • Alexander SchäpersEmail author
  • Mikael A. Carlsson
  • Gabriella Gamberale-Stille
  • Niklas Janz


Searching for resources is often a challenging task, especially for small organisms such as insects. Complex stimuli have to be extracted from the environment and translated into a relevant behavioral output. A first step in this process is to investigate the relative roles of the different senses during search for various resources. While the role of olfaction is well documented in nocturnal moths, the olfactory abilities of the closely related diurnal butterflies are poorly explored. Here we investigated how olfactory information is used in the search for host plants and asked if these abilities varied with levels of stimulus complexity. Thus, we tested two nymphalid butterfly species with divergent host plant range in a two-choice olfactometer testing different combinations of host and non-host plants. The experiments show both the monophagous Aglais urticae and the polyphagous Polygonia c-album could navigate towards an odor source, but this ability varied with context. While mated females exhibited a preference for their host plant, unmated females of both species did not show a preference for host plant cues. Furthermore, both species showed inabilities to make fine-tuned decisions between hosts. We conclude that olfactory cues are important for butterflies to navigate towards targets. We argue that there are limitations on how much information can be extracted from host volatiles. These results are discussed in the light of neural processing limitations and degree of host plant specialization, suggesting the necessity of other sensory modalities to sharpen the decision process and facilitate the final oviposition event.


Olfaction Lepidoptera search behavior information processing hypothesis host plant specialization 



We would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript. This study was financed by the Faculty of Science, Stockholm University, to NJ.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alexander Schäpers
    • 1
    Email author
  • Mikael A. Carlsson
    • 1
  • Gabriella Gamberale-Stille
    • 1
  • Niklas Janz
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of ZoologyStockholm UniversityStockholmSweden

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