Long-term captivity is associated with changes to sensory organ morphology in a critically endangered insect.

Published online
16 Feb 2022
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Freelance, C. B. & Magrath, M. J. L. & Elgar, M. A. & Wong, B. B. M.
Contact email(s)
christopher.freelance@unimelb.edu.au & christopherbfreelance@gmail.com

Publication language


Captive breeding programmes are key to many threatened species reintroduction strategies but could potentially be associated with adaptations to captivity that are maladaptive in their natural habitat. Despite the importance of sensory ecology to biological fitness, few studies explore sensory system adaptations to captivity. Captive environments are devoid of predators and provide ready access to food sources and potential mates, thus reducing the need for individuals to use signals and cues to identify and locate resources or detect potential threats. With reduced complexity of the signalling environment, relaxation of selective pressures may favour reduced investment in sensory organs in captivity. We test this prediction in an iconic critically endangered invertebrate, the Lord Howe Island stick insect Dryococelus australis, which was extirpated from the island in the 1920s/30s and rediscovered on a nearby volcanic stack, Ball's Pyramid, in 2001. Using historical specimens from these populations and specimens from the 8-10th and 14th generations of a long-term conservation captive breeding programme, we examine differences in behaviourally relevant morphological traits of the compound eyes (visual organs) and antennae (olfactory organs). We find that captivity is associated with smaller compound eye size, smaller eye ommatidia and reduced density of antennal odour receptors. These morphological changes are indicative of reduced sensitivity to visual and olfactory signals and cues, and therefore are likely to have fitness implications when reintroducing a captive population into the wild. Synthesis and applications. We observe differences in sensory organ morphology between wild and captive-bred populations of the critically endangered Lord Howe Island stick insect. Our results emphasise the importance of incorporating evolutionary biology and sensory ecology into conservation programme design: to minimise the potential for captive breeding environments to compromise sensory systems that support appropriate behaviours upon reintroduction of populations into a natural habitat.

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