Animals learn to associate sensory cues with the palatability of food in order to avoid bitterness in food (a common sign of toxicity). Associations are important for active foraging predators to avoid unpalatable prey and to invest energy in searching for palatable prey only. However, it has been suggested that sit-and-wait predators might rely on the opportunity that palatable prey approach them by chance: the most efficient strategy could be to catch every available prey and then decide whether to ingest them or not. In the present study, we investigated avoidance learning in a sit-and-wait predator, the praying mantis (Tenodera aridifolia). To examine the effects of conspicuousness and novelty of prey on avoidance learning, we used three different prey species: mealworms (novel prey), honeybees (novel prey with conspicuous signals) and crickets (familiar prey). We sequentially presented the prey species in pairs and made one of them artificially bitter. In the absence of bitterness, the mantises consumed bees and crickets more frequently than mealworms. When the prey were made bitter, the mantises still continued to attack bitter crickets as expected. However, they reduced their attacks on bitter mealworms more than on bitter bees. This contrasts with the fact that conspicuous signals (e.g. coloration in bees) facilitate avoidance learning in active foraging predators. Surprisingly, we found that the bitter bees were totally rejected after an attack whereas bitter mealworms were partially eaten (~35%). Our results highlight the fact that the mantises might maintain a selection pressure on bees, and perhaps on aposematic species in general.
Keywords: Avoidance behavior; bitter taste; learning; praying mantis; predator; prey.