Research ends debate over benefits of butterfly defenses

July 05, 2007

Researchers observed the behaviour of Great-tits foraging for artificial prey to understand more clearly how a species evolves to protect themselves from predators.

Insects, such as butterflies, have bright contrasting colour patterns that indicate to predators that they are not likely to be palatable. In order to gain greater protection from predators, however, some butterflies evolve to imitate the warning signals of a more highly defended species - a phenomenon known as mimicry. Scientists at Liverpool, in collaboration with the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, tested which species of butterfly benefits the most from this technique.

Hannah Rowlands explains: "Previous studies have suggested that the relationship between two look-alike species is parasitic, whereby a 'tastier' insect reaps all the benefits of resembling a more unpalatable species. Scientists have argued that predators may get confused as to which species is most edible and which is not, resulting in them eating more of the unpalatable species than they normally would have done.

"We found that the two species of butterfly we used in our research do not undermine each other and benefit mutually from looking like each other. Copying in this sense is the highest form of flattery!"

In order to understand how this technique benefited both species of butterfly the team devised an experiment in an indoor aviary and observed the behaviour of Great-tits as they attacked artificial prey made from almond filled paper parcels.

Hannah added: "We coated some of the almonds in a non-toxic chemical which gave them a nasty taste, while others were moderately distasteful and some were left to taste simply of almonds. The birds in our aviary learnt to avoid the highly distasteful species quicker than the moderately distasteful ones. The 'tastier' species still benefited, however, in that the birds eventually learnt that in order to stop mistakenly eating the distasteful prey, they must stop eating both species altogether.

"We can now apply this model to other insects that use mimicking techniques, giving us greater insight into why particular species evolve to resemble one another and change their behaviour."
-end-
The research is published in Nature.

University of Liverpool

Related Butterfly Articles from Brightsurf:

Butterfly color diversity due to female preferences
Butterflies have long captured our attention due to their amazing color diversity.

Over a century later, the mystery of the Alfred Wallace's butterfly is solved
An over a century-long mystery has been surrounding the Taiwanese butterfly fauna ever since the 'father of zoogeography' Alfred Russel Wallace described a new species of butterfly: Lycaena nisa, whose identity was only re-examined in a recent project looking into the butterflies of Taiwan.

Stunning space butterfly captured by ESO telescope
Resembling a butterfly with its symmetrical structure, beautiful colours, and intricate patterns, this striking bubble of gas -- known as NGC 2899 -- appears to float and flutter across the sky in this new picture from ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT).

Butterfly wings inspiring next-gen technological innovations
The global energy shortages, environmental degradation and deteriorating healthcare are causing devastating effects to human life.

Armor on butterfly wings protects against heavy rain
An analysis of high-speed raindrops hitting biological surfaces such as feathers, plant leaves and insect wings reveals how these highly water-repelling veneers reduce the water's impact.

The butterfly effect: Climate change could cause decline of some alpine butterfly species
The long-term effects of climate change suggests that the butterfly effect is at work on butterflies in the alpine regions of North America, according to a new study by University of Alberta scientists -- and the predictions don't bode well.

Lyin' eyes: Butterfly, moth eyespots may look the same, but likely evolved separately
The iconic eyespots that some moths and butterflies use to ward off predators likely evolved in distinct ways, providing insights into how these insects became so diverse.

Male-killing bacteria linked to butterfly color changes
Like many poisonous animals, the African monarch butterfly's orange, white and black pattern warns predators that it is toxic.

A gold butterfly can make its own semiconductor skin
A nanoscale gold butterfly provides a more precise route for growing/synthesizing nanosized semiconductors that can be used in nano-lasers and other applications.

Every time the small cabbage white butterfly flaps its wings it has us to thank
Through close examination of genetic variation and similarities between existing populations, and comparisons of historical data regarding infestations of Pieris rapae in Brassicaceae crops, a consortium of researchers document how humans helped the small cabbage white butterfly spread from Europe across the world.

Read More: Butterfly News and Butterfly Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.