- University of Southern Denmark
- University of Toronto
- Cornell University
Moths and butterflies flying in search of mates risk detection by numerous aerial predators; under the cover of night, the greatest threat will often be from insectivorous bats. During such encounters, the toxic dogbane tiger moth, Cycnia tenera uses the received intensity, duration and emission pattern of the bat's echolocation calls to determine when, and how many, defensive ultrasonic clicks to produce in return. These clicks, which constitute an acoustic startle response, act as warning signals against bats in flight. Using an integrated test of stimulus generalization and dishabituation, here we show that C. tenera is able to discriminate between the echolocation calls characteristic of a bat that has only just detected it versus those of a bat actively in pursuit of it. We also show that C. tenera habituates more profoundly to the former stimulus train (‘early attack’) than to the latter (‘late attack’), even though it was initially equally responsive to both stimuli. Matched sensory and behavioural data indicate that reduced responsiveness reflects habituation and is not merely attributable to sensory adaptation or motor fatigue. In search of mates in the face of bats, C. tenera's ability to discriminate between attacking bats representing different levels of risk, and to habituate less so to those most dangerous, should function as an adaptive cost–benefit trade-off mechanism in nature.
Eggs were collected from QUBS then reared in the lab for experiments