Hybridization,speciation and phylogeny in Heliconius butterflies

Many species of Heliconius hybridize occasionally in nature. We have been studying hybridization between recently evolved species of tropical Heliconius butterflies. Heliconius are among of the best examples of mimicry (see also photos at top of home page), and were indeed among the first examples studied by Bates.  Although hybridization is usually rare on a per individual basis, over a quarter of all Heliconius species produce hybrids with at least one other species in nature.

Heliconius breeding in the insectary.  First photo: Female Heliconius cydno from Panama mating with a male cydno x melpomene hybrid.  Second photo: Two forms of Heliconius melpomene used in our experiments; top -- French Guiana; bottom -- Panama.

We concentrated on hybridization between the species H. cydno and H. melpomene in both laboratory and field studies (see photos above). This work has been carried out by Chris Jiggins, Russ Naisbit, Vanessa Bull and I, together with Colombian colleagues from the Universidad de los Andes under Dr. Mauricio Linares, and was supported by NERC. A switch in Müllerian mimicry ring and associated microhabitat choice was important in triggering speciation between these species: mimicry causes speciation.  In collaboration with Biff Bermingham (STRI, Panama) and W. Owen McMillan (Puerto Rico), we are involved in genomic mapping of the genetic differences between these two species. For details of the work so far, you may want to look at the PhD thesis of Vanessa Bull and the research pages of Chris Jiggins and Owen McMillan.

Over the years, we have been accumulating data on the colour pattern genetics in a variety of crosses between geographic races and species of Heliconius erato, H. melpomene, and related species. These broods are now being collated as photographs and specimens in database format for use in studies of developmental genetic evolution of colour pattern, as Heliconius enters the genomic age.

Due to the large amounts of molecular work on Heliconius and related species, we are now in a position to contribute towards a molecular phylogeny of the Heliconiina based on both mitochondrial and multiple nuclear loci.  The work is being carried out at STRI by Margarita Beltrán as part of her PhD work, in collaboration with Andrew Brower (Oregon) and Carla Penz (Milwaukee).  

Further details: NERC grant report abstract
Genealogy and Speciation in Heliconius butterflies, by Vanessa Bull (2003)
Artificial crosses of Heliconius

Data on Heliconius hybrid crosses

Other Heliconius links
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