UCL News


Panama butterflies cosy up to other species

6 May 2006

Butterflies in Central America are providing evidence for inter-species breeding as an evolutionary force.

Contrary to existing theories, the resulting hybrids can be highly fertile and viable, a study of two members of the Heliconius genus suggests.

Professor James Mallet (UCL Biology), an evolutionary biologist … set out to study the flow of genes between the two genetically and physically distinct butterfly species Heliconius cydno and H. melpomene … whose ranges overlap in Panama. … The two species are thought to have diverged 1.5 million years ago.

Mallet and colleagues compared the structure of five different genes in the two species and found that one, which codes for an enzyme Mpi, has the same structure in butterflies of both species captured in Panama. Mpi mutates quickly, making it unlikely that the shared sequence is a remnant of the genome that existed before the species diverged. …

The clincher comes from analysis of H. melpomene living further afield, in French Guiana. In these butterflies, the gene sequence is quite different, suggesting that the gene in Panamanian butterflies is only found where the two Heliconius species overlap. "Gene flow is there, but it's difficult to find," Mallet says. "If we look harder by checking lots of genes instead of one, then I think we'll find hybridisation everywhere."

He is in little doubt about the significance of the finding. "We tend to believe that evolution is down to mutation or slow selection of certain traits, but now we're realising that evolution can come from the acquisition of genes from other species." …

Michael Day, 'New Scientist'