Environment Butterflies play copycat to ward off predators

Butterflies play copycat to ward off predators

New research has revealed how different butterfly species in the Amazon rainforest came to mimic each other’s brightly colored wing patterns to deter predators.

A team of researchers at the University of Adelaide and the University of Cambridge sequenced the genes of 142 butterflies from 17 species to learn how mimicry can occur.

According to Dr Simon Baxter, the butterfly species are Müllerian mimics which he explains are “toxic to predators, so by sharing the same red patterns on their wings, birds quickly learn to avoid all butterflies with the same pattern”.

Analysis of the butterflies’ genes revealed a small sequence controlling the red colour patterns in Heliconius butterflies. When they looked at the fine detail, researchers discovered two regulatory elements: one controlling red stripes on the hindwing and the other controlling the red patches on the forewing.

“We traced back the evolution of the two red patterns and found that each pattern evolved in a different species, some two million years ago. Subsequently, hybridisation between different species brought these two red elements together and created the pattern we see today,” says Dr Baxter.

“This insight provides a better understanding into these insects and it appears hybridisation plays a big role in mimicry,” he says.

Read more here: The University of Adelaide.