Sexy or repulsive? Butterfly wings can be both to mates and predators

Apr 01, 2009
Oliver found that the eyespots of some butterflies, such as this pair of mating Bicyclus anynana, serve to both attract mates and ward off predators. Credit: William Piel

Butterflies seem able to both attract mates and ward off predators using different sides of their wings, according to new research by Yale University biologists.

Trying to find the balance between these two crucial behaviors is one of nature's oldest dilemmas, according to Jeffrey Oliver, a postdoctoral associate in Yale's Department of Ecology and and lead author on the study, which appears online today in the journal : Biological Sciences.

"You want to be noticeable and desirable for mates, but other onlookers, including predators, are paying attention to those signals as well."

Oliver was interested in whether the eyespots on the upperside of butterflies' - specifically, those of bush brown - serve a different purpose than the ones on the underside. Ever since Darwin's time, biologists (including Darwin himself) have postulated whether the upperside patterns could be used to attract mates, while at the same time, those on the underside could help avoid predators.

Working with Yale biologist Antónia Monteiro, Oliver used new tools to put the old theory to the test. Using different evolutionary models, he found that the eyespots on the upperside of the butterflies' wings appear to evolve much more quickly than those on the underside, meaning they appear and disappear frequently through the course of evolution. The result is consistent with the theory that these are used to attract mates, as signals used for sexual selection tend to evolve faster than others.

The study is the first to employ evolutionary history models to show that a species can use the same signal - in this case, eyespots - on different areas of its body to communicate different messages.

While butterflies often sit with their wings folded together and their undersides showing, they can flash a hidden eyespot on their forewings to confuse predators and give themselves time to escape. Exactly how the upperside eyespots communicate with potential mates is not fully understood, Oliver said, although it's thought they might help butterflies identify each other, which would help keep different species from cross-mating.

Next, Oliver will use longer evolutionary timescales to study where and how eyespots evolved, as well as whether they developed all at once, or independently over time.

Other authors of the paper include Kendra Robertson (State University of New York at Buffalo).

Source: Yale University (news : web)

Explore further: Scientists discover new 'transformer frog' in Ecuador

Related Stories

Painting by numbers

Sep 29, 2006

Professor Richard ffrench-Constant of the University of Exeter in Cornwall has worked with an international team of experts to ‘decode’ the patterns on butterflies’ wings.

Recommended for you

Scientists discover new 'transformer frog' in Ecuador

8 hours ago

It doesn't turn into Prince Charming, but a new species of frog discovered in Ecuador has earned the nickname "transformer frog" for its ability to change its skin from spiny to smooth in five minutes.

US gives threatened status to northern long-eared bat

10 hours ago

The federal government said Wednesday that it is listing the northern long-eared bat as threatened, giving new protections to a species that has been nearly wiped out in some areas by the spread of a fungal ...

Mice sing like songbirds to woo mates

11 hours ago

Male mice sing surprisingly complex songs to seduce females, sort of like songbirds, according to a new Duke study appearing April 1 in the Frontiers of Behavioral Neuroscience.

A new crustacean species found in Galicia

12 hours ago

One reason that tourists are attracted to Galicia is for its food. The town of O Grove (Pontevedra) is well known for its Seafood Festival and the Spider Crab Festival. A group of researchers from the University ...

Ants in space find it tougher going than those on Earth

13 hours ago

(Phys.org)—The results of a study conducted to see how well ants carry out their search activities in space are in, and the team that sent them there has written and published the results in the journal ...

Rats found able to recognize pain in other rat faces

13 hours ago

(Phys.org)—A team of researchers working in Japan with affiliations to several institutions in that country, has found that lab rats are able to recognize pain in the faces of other rats and avoid them ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.