Cultivated fruit flies | A moment of science
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Cultivated fruit flies | A moment of science

A beige fruit fly with red eyes rests on a green leaf

Researchers have wondered whether we might observe the kinds of cultural traditions we have seen in some monkeys, whales and birds in much smaller animals, such as insects.

(Frank Lawler / flickr)

How could fruit flies have a culture?

They really have no way of flying inside when it’s clear they’re unwanted guests.

Fruit flies have cultural traditions, which are socially learned behaviors that animals pass down from generation to generation. A team of researchers wondered if we could observe the kind of cultural traditions we observed in some monkeys, whales, and the birds in much smaller animals, such as insects.

The researchers designed an experiment in which observer female fruit flies watched demonstrator female fruit flies choose between males artificially colored pink or green. When the observers then chose their own mate, more than 70 percent of the time they chose a mate that was the same color as the one chosen by the fruit fly they had observed. This showed that fruit flies transmit their mating preferences to each other.

The scientists then wanted to test whether the fruit flies would pass this preference on to subsequent generations. So they asked the fruit flies that had been observers to become demonstrators in a new trial for several cycles. The mating preferences (choosing a green or pink mate) were passed on for eight generations before a generation of fruit flies began selecting mates randomly again.

The groups of flies were small, but using computer simulations, the scientists found that when a group of flies had more than thirty flies per generation, cultural traditions could, in principle, be passed down for thousands of generations.

Unfortunately, staying outside is not part of their traditions. Maybe someone could teach them how to pass that on.

Editor: Julia Saltz, Rice University

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