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Masters of disguise: secrets of nature's ‘great pretenders’ revealed

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20 February 2008

A gene which helps a harmless African butterfly ward off predators by giving it wing patterns like those of toxic species, has been identified by scientists who publish their findings today (20 February 2008).

The mocker swallowtail butterfly, Papilio dardanus, is unusual because it emerges from its chrysalis with one of a large number of different possible wing patterns and colours. This is different from most butterfly species which are identified by a common wing pattern and colour. Furthermore, some of the different patterns that the mocker swallowtail exhibits mimic those of poisonous species, which affords this harmless insect a valuable disguise which scares off predators.

Biologists are interested in finding out exactly how wing pattern is determined in the mocker swallowtail, because they believe that understanding how these different mimic patterns evolved may shed new light on whether such evolutionary changes occur in small gradual steps, or sudden leaps.

In the 1950s scientists realised there must be a genetic ‘switch’ controlling which of the numerous possible wing patterns is expressed in each individual mocker swallowtail, but until now the location and identity of the genes involved have remained a mystery. 

The new study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, shows how a team of biologists used molecular tags and DNA sequencing, in order to pinpoint the part of its genetic code that determines wing pattern and colour. Their study suggests that a developmental gene called ‘invected’, which was already known to be involved in the early embryonic development of butterflies, is behind the allocation of different wing patterns in mocker swallowtails.

Professor Alfried Vogler of Imperial College London’s Department of Life Sciences and the Natural History Museum, one of the authors on the paper, explains, however, that further investigation is needed to figure out exactly how this gene works.

“We’ve taken a big step here towards identifying how exactly this fascinating insect species is endowed with such a wide variety of extremely useful wing patterns. However, identifying the area of the genome involved in this process is just the first step – we now need to look in more detail at the differences in the invected gene, and another gene located next to it, to find out exactly how they produce the different forms,” he said.

He goes on to emphasise the significance of studying the mocker swallowtail, saying: “You could argue that there would be little point in a species which slowly evolved to mimic a poisonous butterfly over the course of generations – the disguise is only useful if full and complete. This could suggest the possibility of sudden leaps in evolution occurring in this species, which would be an incredibly exciting discovery – by studying the changes in gene sequences we will find out if this happened or not.”

The mocker swallowtail is found in sub-Saharan Africa and has a wingspan of between three-and-a-half, and four-and-a-quarter inches. Only females of the species exhibit the wing patterns that mimic other butterflies. All the males are yellow, with black markings and have the typical tails of most swallowtail butterflies. 

The study was funded by the Human Frontier Science Program, Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and BBSRC.

ENDS

Notes to editors

  1. ‘Colour pattern specification in the Mocker swallowtail Papilio dardanus: the transcription factor invected is a candidate for the mimicry locus H,’ Proceedings of the Royal Society: B, Wednesday 20 February 2008.

    Rebecca Clark (1, 2), Sarah M. Brown (3), Steve C. Collins (4), Chris D. Jiggins (5), David G. Heckel (3, 6), and Alfried P. Vogler (1, 2).

    (1) Department of Entomology, Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD, UK
    (2) Division of Biology, Imperial College London, Silwood Park Campus, Ascot SL5 7PY, UK
    (3) CESAR, Department of Genetics, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Vic. 3010, Australia
    (4) African Butterfly Research Institute, PO Box 14308, 0800 Nairobi, Kenya
    (5) Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK
    (6) Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Hans-Knoll Strasse 8, 07745 Jena, Germany
  2. About Imperial College London

    Imperial College London - rated the world’s fifth best university in the 2007 Times Higher Education Supplement University Rankings - is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 12,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality.
    Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.
    Website: http://www.imperial.ac.uk
  3. About the Natural History Museum

    Selected by Time Out in 2007 as one of the Seven Wonders of London, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

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