The study focuses on two groups of Neotropical caterpillars: Danaini of the Caribbean Island of Hispaniola and Ithomiini of the upper Amazon in eastern Ecuador. Sourakov raised and observed danaine caterpillars, including the monarch butterfly and its relatives. These species apparently form Mllerian mimicry rings, in which toxic species adopt the same warning color patterns so a predator will more quickly learn which species to avoid.
In Ecuador, Willmott and study co-author Marianne Elias, from the Musum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, found that 22 of 41 ithomiine caterpillars displayed some kind of warning coloration. Five exhibited a previously undocumented pattern with a bright yellow body and blue tips, and four were likely Batesian mimics, in which edible species adopt the coloration of an unpalatable model species for protection. These "freeloaders" only appear to have the defense mechanisms of the model species.
"They act almost like parasites, because the mimics are actually edible and therefore deceive predators without having to invest in costly resources to maintain toxicity," Willmott said. "Such a system can only be stable when the mimics are relatively rare, otherwise predators will learn the trick and attack more individuals of both mimics and models, driving models to evolve novel color patterns to escape the predators."
Mimicry may be relatively rare in caterpillars because it is more difficult for them to establish bright coloration, Willmott said. A brightly colored caterpillar has less chance of evading predators than a mobile adult butterfly.
"In adults, bright coloration may be favored by sexual selection for signaling to males and females," Willmott said. "Bright colors may be disadvan
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Entomological Society of America