"We were blown away by what we found," said Dr Mathieu Joron of the Musum National d'Histoire Naturelle, who led the research. "These butterflies are the 'transformers' of the insect world. But instead of being able to turn from a car into a robot with the flick of switch, a single genetic switch allows these insects to morph into several different mimetic forms it is amazing and the stuff of science fiction. Now we are starting to understand how this switch can have such a pervasive effect."
Professor Richard ffrench-Constant of the University of Exeter added: "This phenomenon has puzzled scientists for centuries including Darwin himself. Indeed, it was the original observations of mimicry that helped frame the concept of natural selection. Now that we have the right tools we are able to understand the reason for this amazing transformation: by changing just one gene, the butterfly is able to fool its predators by mimicking a range of different butterflies that taste bad."
This single supergene also appears important in melanism in other species, including moths. In April 2011, a team led by Liverpool University explained in the journal Science how the Peppered Moth developed its black wings in nineteenth-century Britain's sooty industrial environment.
"This supergene region not only allows insects to mimic each other, as in Heliconius, but also to mimic the soot blackened background of the industrial revolution it's a gene that really packs an evolutionary punch," added Professor Richard ffrench-Constant.
|Contact: Sarah Hoyle|
University of Exeter