Butterflies imitate each other’s flying patterns to escape predators

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In a fascinating display of nature’s ingenuity, scientists have discovered that certain inedible butterfly species have evolved not just similar warning color patterns to deter predators but have also developed akin flight behaviors.

This dual strategy of mimicry—visual and behavioral—enhances their chances of survival by sending a stronger ‘do not eat’ signal to potential predators.

This groundbreaking research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted by a team from the University of York.

To uncover this phenomenon, researchers utilized high-speed video footage to capture the flight patterns of wild butterflies across South America.

They meticulously analyzed the wing beat frequency and wing angles of 351 butterflies, spanning 38 species across 10 distinct color pattern mimicry groups.

This rich dataset allowed them to explore how various factors, such as habitat, wing shape, temperature, and mimicry group affiliation, influence butterfly flight behavior.

Contrary to expectations that habitat or wing shape would be the primary influencers of flight behavior, the study found that the color pattern mimicry group was the most significant determinant.

This discovery indicates that butterflies within the same mimicry group, even if they are distantly related, exhibit more similar flight behaviors than closely related species with different color patterns.

Thus, to a predator, these butterflies not only look alike but also move in a similar manner, reinforcing their unpalatability.

Edd Page, a Ph.D. student at the University of York and a lead author of the study, highlighted the evolutionary advantage of sharing warning signals across species.

This shared signaling reduces the need for each species to individually teach predators that they are distasteful.

While the visual mimicry of color patterns is a straightforward concept, the mimicry of flight patterns is more complex, influenced by various environmental and physiological factors.

The research primarily focused on the Heliconiini tribe of butterflies, which boasts around 100 species and subspecies distributed across the Neotropical regions, each belonging to distinct mimicry groups.

Additionally, the study included species from the ithomiine butterfly tribe, which diverged from the Heliconiini approximately 70 million years ago but includes species with remarkably similar Tiger color patterns.

This study not only sheds light on the complexity of mimicry as an evolutionary strategy but also underscores the dynamic nature of behavioral adaptation.

It reveals how distinct species can converge on similar survival strategies over time and even how populations within a single species can diverge in their behaviors over shorter timescales.

Professor Kanchon Dasmahapatra, another key contributor to the study, remarked on the extent of flight mimicry observed in these butterflies.

This behavior serves as a compelling example of how evolutionary pressures, such as predation, can lead to the refinement of survival strategies.

The next step in this research is to identify the genetic mechanisms behind these behavioral adaptations, offering deeper insights into how such complex mimicry evolves.

The research findings can be found in PNAS.

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