Butterfly collection pinpoints brilliance of mimicry

July 15, 2014 by Nicola Pearson, Natural History Museum
Butterfly collection pinpoints brilliance of mimicry
Morphs of P. dardanus from a specimen tray in the Museum collection. Credit: PLoS

New research on the Museum's Lepidoptera collection has shed light on how some butterflies pretend to be lethal.

For decades, biologists have been intrigued by the staggering diversity of within certain butterfly , in particular the mocker swallowtail, Papilio dardanus.

The array of different forms exhibited by this African butterfly, now estimated at between 11 and 18, meant that until 1869, they were often described as belonging to separate species.

Fooling the enemy

P. dardanus is a textbook example of a successful Batesian mimic - an edible butterfly species in which the females take on the colours and wing patterns of toxic species to ward off predators.

Successful mimics such as P. dardanus cannot afford to become more abundant than the species they're copying otherwise predators, such as baby birds, learn that they're safe to eat.

This means its appearance continually evolves to maintain the wariness of predators.

In a new study published this week in Plos One, Cambridge University PhD researcher Martin Thompson databased and geocoded the 3,395 wild specimens preserved in the Museum's pinned collection to help explain the existence of 'imperfect' intermediates - non-mimetic female , believed to have resulted from a breakdown of the mimetic pattern.

Broken brilliance

'In other words, we wanted to see if something goes wrong in certain geographical locations that breaks down the dominance hierarchy and makes some of the butterflies no longer mimics,' Thompson said.

The collection shows is a clear divergence between butterfly populations in East and West Africa, across the rift valley, suggesting the butterflies adapt to separate environments with cross-breeding in the middle producing unpredictable outcomes.

It could be, however, that being an inaccurate mimic in these areas does not put the butterflies at risk because of a lack of predators, or it could simply mean there are a fewer distasteful species to mimic.

Thompson said the Museum's Lepidoptera collection allowed the team to plot the hotspots for the different P. dardanus wing patterns, for example the area of East Africa surrounding Lake Victoria in Uganda and Kenya, which hopefully will lead to more work to understand the genetics behind successful mimicry.

Sensational Butterflies on display

The team behind the Plos One paper is about to publish further research on the DNA of P. dardanus supplied by specimens that successfully emerged in the Museum's live butterfly house last year.

Although a tropical butterfly, there are currently live P. dardanus in the Museum's Sensational Butterflies exhibition, with more hopefully about to emerge.

Other swallowtails belonging to the Papilio group can also be seen in the butterfly house, which is open to the public until 14 September 2014.

There is also a display of P. dardanus specimens in Dinosaur Way in the Blue Zone.

Explore further: Scientists unravel the genetic secrets of nature's master of mimicry

More information: Thompson MJ, Timmermans MJTN (2014) "Characterising the Phenotypic Diversity of Papilio dardanus Wing Patterns Using an Extensive Museum Collection." PLoS ONE 9(5): e96815. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0096815

Related Stories

Climate change may disrupt butterfly flight seasons

November 21, 2013

The flight season timing of a wide variety of butterflies is responsive to temperature and could be altered by climate change, according to a UBC study that leverages more than a century's worth of museum and weather records.

'Supergene' is key to copycat butterflies

August 12, 2011

Since Charles Darwin, biologists have pondered the mystery of "mimicry butterflies", which survive by copying the wing patterns of other butterflies that taste horrible to their predators, birds.

Recommended for you

Cracking the genetic code for complex traits in cattle

February 20, 2018

A massive global study involving 58,000 cattle has pinpointed the genes that influence the complex genetic trait of height in cattle, opening the door for researchers to use the same approach to map high-value traits including ...

Duplicate genes help animals resolve sexual conflict

February 19, 2018

Duplicate copies of a gene shared by male and female fruit flies have evolved to resolve competing demands between the sexes. New genetic analysis by researchers at the University of Chicago describes how these copies have ...


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.