The information-processing hypothesis (IPH) posits that specialist herbivores should make host-associated decisions more effectively than generalists and thus enjoy associated fitness advantages that may help explain the evolutionary prevalence of host-specific insects. This is because generalists must evaluate a greater diversity of host plants/cues than specialists and thus face a cognitive challenge that is predicted to constrain the efficiency and accuracy of their choices. Here, we present the first individual-level evaluation of this hypothesis. This involved experimentally quantifying the specificity, efficiency, and accuracy of host selection, as both larvae and adults, for many individuals representing each of three 'host forms' of Neochlamisus bebbianae leaf beetles. These experiments provided several significant findings: host forms differed in larval specificity, with the more specialized host forms more efficiently and accurately selecting optimal hosts as both larvae and adults. Positive correlations between larval specificity and both efficiency and accuracy across test individuals provided the most direct evidence to date for a biological association between these variables. Our results thus provide strong and consistent support for the IPH at the level of both populations and individuals. Because individual N. bebbianae make many host-associated decisions in nature, our results suggest that cognitive constraints may play a major role in the evolutionary dynamics of ongoing ecological specialization and diversification in this species.
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