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Sharing Colors to Survive

At first glance, the vibrantly colored and patterned butterflies living in Central and South America wouldn’t seem to have much in common with that notorious beast of burden – the mule.

In a paper published last week in Nature, though, researchers found that different species of Heliconius butterflies use interbreeding to acquire colorful wing patterns that repel predators. This may be a more rapid way of evolving desired wing colors and patterns than starting from scratch.

Heliconius butterflies use interbreeding to share beneficial colors and patterns.

Crossing different animal species – known in the scientific world as hybridization – is commonly known as an evolutionary dead end. The sterile mule, a cross of a horse and a donkey, is perhaps the poster child for the undesired outcomes from these types of crosses.

Yet in the case of butterfly hybridization, Heliconius species seem to be spreading gene regions that control wing pattern and color, says Nature paper co-author and NC State postdoctoral researcher Heather Hines, showing that these hybrid couplings can at times be advantageous.

“Because of the strong fitness advantages of having the mimetic pattern, once this pattern was obtained through hybridization in the new species it would have spread rapidly,” she says.

And that’s really good for butterfly survival. The quicker butterfly wing colors and pattern can scream “I don’t taste good” to predators, the more apt butterflies are to live longer and multiply.


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