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The concepts of ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’ in an insect


Insects process and learn information flexibly to adapt to their environment. The honeybee Apis mellifera constitutes a traditional model for studying learning and memory at behavioural, cellular and molecular levels1. Earlier studies focused on elementary associative and non-associative forms of learning determined by either olfactory conditioning of the proboscis extension reflex1 or the learning of visual stimuli2 in an operant context. However, research has indicated that bees are capable of cognitive performances that were thought to occur only in some vertebrate species. For example, honeybees can interpolate visual information3, exhibit associative recall4,5, categorize visual information6,7,8 and learn contextual information9. Here we show that honeybees can form ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’ concepts. They learn to solve ‘delayed matching-to-sample’ tasks, in which they are required to respond to a matching stimulus, and ‘delayed non-matching-to-sample’ tasks, in which they are required to respond to a different stimulus; they can also transfer the learned rules to new stimuli of the same or a different sensory modality. Thus, not only can bees learn specific objects and their physical parameters, but they can also master abstract inter-relationships, such as sameness and difference.

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Figure 1: Experiments 1 and 2.
Figure 2: Experiment 4.
Figure 3: Experiments 5 and 6, investigating non-matching performance.


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We thank C. Bönisch and C. Wiley for help with experiments 5 and 6. M.G., A.J. and R.M. were supported by the Special Programme SFB 515 of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. M.G. was also supported by a grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. S.W.Z. and M.S. were supported partly by a grant from the Human Frontiers in Science Program and from the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Office of Naval Research. The two laboratories contributed equally to the work.

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Correspondence to Martin Giurfa.

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Giurfa, M., Zhang, S., Jenett, A. et al. The concepts of ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’ in an insect. Nature 410, 930–933 (2001).

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