New study uncovers secrets behind butterfly wing patterns

Oct 25, 2007
New study uncovers secrets behind butterfly wing patterns
Heliconius Erato: A Heliconius butterfly in Panama

The genes that make a fruit fly's eyes red also produce red wing patterns in the Heliconius butterfly found in South and Central America, finds a new study by a UC Irvine entomologist.

Bob Reed, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, discovered that genes involved in making insect eye pigments evolved over time to also make wing pigments in butterflies. This finding sheds light on the genetic causes of wing patterns and why, in the Heliconius, those patterns can vary widely from region to region.

"We found that evolution is achieved primarily through recycling old genes into new functions, as opposed to evolving entirely new genes from scratch," Reed said.

Results of the study appear online this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Within one species of the butterfly genus Heliconius, more than 20 distinct wing patterns can exist in different geographic regions. Over time, the Heliconius evolves to look like local unrelated butterfly species that are poisonous to birds, a phenomenon called mimicry.

"It is a very basic textbook example of natural selection," Reed said. "If you look like you're poisonous, you're not going to get eaten and you can produce offspring."

Reed's study also explains under which conditions certain genes will cause a stripe on a Heliconius wing to become yellow or red.

W. Owen McMillan of the University of Puerto Rico and Lisa M. Nagy of the University of Arizona also worked on this study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation and a University of Arizona IGERT genomics fellowship.

UC Irvine has two additional butterfly experts -- Adriana Briscoe, who studies butterfly eyes and color vision, and Tony Long, who studies eyespot patterns on butterfly wings. All three scientists are members of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in the School of Biological Sciences.

Source: University of California - Irvine

Explore further: Orb-weaving spiders living in urban areas may be larger

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

How the butterflies got their spots

Feb 05, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- How two butterfly species have evolved exactly the same striking wing colour and pattern has intrigued biologists since Darwin's day. Now, scientists at Cambridge have found 'hotspots' in ...

Evolution of new species requires few genetic changes

Oct 31, 2013

Only a few genetic changes are needed to spur the evolution of new species—even if the original populations are still in contact and exchanging genes. Once started, however, evolutionary divergence evolves ...

Recommended for you

Orb-weaving spiders living in urban areas may be larger

10 hours ago

A common orb-weaving spider may grow larger and have an increased ability to reproduce when living in urban areas, according to a study published August 20, 2014 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Eli ...

User comments : 0