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Gregarious desert locusts have substantially larger brains with altered proportions compared with the solitarious phase

, : Gregarious desert locusts have substantially larger brains with altered proportions compared with the solitarious phase. Proceedings. Biological Sciences 277(1697): 3087-3096

The behavioural demands of group living and foraging have been implicated in both evolutionary and plastic changes in brain size. Desert locusts show extreme phenotypic plasticity, allowing brain morphology to be related to very different lifestyles in one species. At low population densities, locusts occur in a solitarious phase that avoids other locusts and is cryptic in appearance and behaviour. Crowding triggers the transformation into the highly active gregarious phase, which aggregates into dense migratory swarms. We found that the brains of gregarious locusts have very different proportions and are also 30 per cent larger overall than in solitarious locusts. To address whether brain proportions change with size through nonlinear scaling (allometry), we conducted the first comprehensive major axis regression analysis of scaling relations in an insect brain. This revealed that phase differences in brain proportions arise from a combination of allometric effects and deviations from the allometric expectation (grade shifts). In consequence, gregarious locusts had a larger midbrainoptic lobe ratio, a larger central complex and a 50 per cent larger ratio of the olfactory primary calyx to the first olfactory neuropile. Solitarious locusts invest more in low-level sensory processing, having disproportionally larger primary visual and olfactory neuropiles, possibly to gain sensitivity. The larger brains of gregarious locusts prioritize higher integration, which may support the behavioural demands of generalist foraging and living in dense and highly mobile swarms dominated by intense intraspecific competition.


PMID: 20507896

DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2010.0694

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