Zorimar Vilella
Year: 2018
Faculty Advisor: Robert Raguso

“Do hawkmoths dream of flower shapes? Exploring innate preference by flower-naive Manduca sexta.”

Project Summary: 

How does floral dimensions, size, and shape affect flower choice and handling in the hawkmoth Manduca sexta Gaining the fundamental knowledge of plant-pollinator interactions is essential to the understanding of ecological systems and the maintenance of agricultural systems. Many flowering plants are highly dependent on the contribution of animals for pollination. Manduca sexta, being a nocturnal pollinator and having an unusually long proboscis occupies an important niche and is responsible, in part, for the pollination of night blooming flowers. In addition, the moths’ unique flight and size (similar to a hummingbird), not common for an insect, allow it to be a model organism for neuroecology and behavioral assays. Floral guides, including olfactory and visual signals attract moths to the plant (Raguso and Willis, 2005); tactile signals, such as grooves, then guide the moth towards the nectary (Goyret & Raguso, 2006). Numerous studies have been performed to elucidate the sensory systems of M. sexta; this research will provide insights into the moth’s innate preferences towards shape and size, how these nocturnal animals can learn and improve foraging behavior and how those preferences and behaviors have shaped some of the world’s most ostentatious, night-blooming flowers, through pollinator-mediated natural selection. Therefore, this research will contribute to fundamental knowledge of plant-pollinator interactions with focus on its ecology.

Raguso, R. A., & Willis, M. A. (2005). Synergy between visual and olfactory cues in nectar feeding by wild hawkmoths, Manduca sexta. Animal Behaviour, 69(2), 407-418. doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2004.04.015
Goyret, J. and Raguso, R. A. (2006). The role of mechanosensory input in flower handling efficiency and learning by Manduca sexta. J. Exp. Biol. 209, 1585-1593.

My Experience:

I applied to the BTI 2018 Summer internship program because I wanted a hands-on learning experience where I would not only be challenged as a student but as a future professional. BTI gave me the chance to achieve this goal as I was given the opportunity to develop my own research project at the Raguso Lab in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University. This experience has presented me with an immense array of new research topics in the fields of neuroecology, neurobiology and animal behavior. One of the most gratifying experiences was the chance to work alongside a team of dedicated researchers who helped me gain the skills and confidence needed to analyze, discuss, and handle different experimental situations both as an individual and as a team. In conclusion, all the experiences and skills I gained from this program will greatly enhance my personal and professional development.