Travelers to the neotropicsthe tropical lands of the Americasmight be forgiven for thinking that all of the colorful insects flittering over sunny puddles or among dense forest understory are butterflies. In fact, many are not. Some are moths that have reinvented themselves as butterflies, converging on the daytime niche typically dominated by their less hairy relatives. Now, a new revision of the taxonomic relationships among one such group of insects, the subfamily Dioptinae, sheds light on the diversity of tropical moth species and presents a unique story of parallel evolution.
"These diurnal moths are a microcosm of butterfly evolution," says James Miller, author of the new Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History and a research associate in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the Museum. "There are about 500 spectacular dioptine species, all of which evolved from a common ancestora nondescript brown nocturnal mothinto a diversity of butterfly mimics." Miller qualifies this with a technicality, though, noting that no one is sure whether butterflies or diurnal moths evolved their colors first (and who is really mimicking whom).
The wing pattern diversity within the subfamily is enormous: some species mimic clear-winged butterflies and inhabit the darker parts of the forest understory where their co-mimics fly. The caterpillars of these species feed on palms. Still others have wings that are colored blue and yellow and feed on melastomes. About 100 species feed on Passiflora, the poisonous passion flowers famous for being consumed by the caterpillars of Heliconious butterflies. In fact, although most of the Dioptinae are diurnal, or fly during the day, a few species like those in Xenomigia have re-conquered the night. Although most dioptines are neotropical, ranging from lowland jungles to cloud forests at 4,000 meters in the Andes, Phryganidia californica occurs in the western United State
|Contact: Kristin Elise Phillips|
American Museum of Natural History