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Six Butterflies in One

September 20, 2011

One species of butterfly mimics six different species to avoid predators.



Six butterflies in one…I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Bright colors on butterflies warn avian predators that they taste bad. And many butterflies have evolved to look just like other species, taking advantage of their success at warding off wary birds. But one species from South America called Heliconius numata takes this mimicry to a new level. It comes in fully a half dozen color pattern morphs, according to University of Exeter molecular biologist Richard ffrench-Constant.

RICHARD FFRENCH-CONSTANT (University of Exeter):

This one butterfly can switch into six different forms, each of which mimics a completely different species.


He and his colleagues recently discovered that the six color morphs are due to a set of genes that are locked together in six different combinations.


And the incredible thing is if there’s a single mistake, if there’s a gene out of place, the birds are so visually acute that they can spot the intermediates and nail them. It is quite mind-blowing if you think about it in terms of natural selection.


I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.