Environmental Adaptation, Phenotypic Plasticity, and Associative Learning in Insects: The Desert Locust as a Case Study
journal contributionposted on 31.08.2016, 12:13 by Patrício M. V. Simões, Swidbert R. Ott, Jeremy E. Niven
The ability to learn and store information should be adapted to the environment in which animals operate to confer a selective advantage. Yet the relationship between learning, memory, and the environment is poorly understood, and further complicated by phenotypic plasticity caused by the very environment in which learning and memory need to operate. Many insect species show polyphenism, an extreme form of phenotypic plasticity, allowing them to occupy distinct environments by producing two or more alternative phenotypes. Yet how the learning and memories capabilities of these alternative phenotypes are adapted to their specific environments remains unknown for most polyphenic insect species. The desert locust can exist as one of two extreme phenotypes or phases, solitarious and gregarious. Recent studies of associative food–odor learning in this locust have shown that aversive but not appetitive learning differs between phases. Furthermore, switching from the solitarious to the gregarious phase (gregarization) prevents locusts acquiring new learned aversions, enabling them to convert an aversive memory formed in the solitarious phase to an appetitive one in the gregarious phase. This conversion provides a neuroecological mechanism that matches key changes in the behavioral environments of the two phases. These findings emphasize the importance of understanding the neural mechanisms that generate ecologically relevant behaviors and the interactions between different forms of behavioral plasticity.