Revealed: A Gene Underlying Visual Mating Behaviors in Heliconius Butterflies

In a first, evolutionary biologists have identified a gene that influences visual preferences in tropical butterflies

Tropical Heliconius butterflies are well known for the bright color patterns on their wings. These striking color patterns not only scare off predators – the butterflies are poisonous and are distasteful to birds – but are also important signals during mate selection. A team led by evolutionary biologist Richard Merrill, PhD, from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU Munich), in cooperation with researchers from the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá (Colombia) and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (Panama), has now exploited the diversity of warning patterns of various Heliconius species to investigate the genetic foundations of these preferences. In the process, the scientists identified a gene that is directly linked to evolutionary changes in a visually guided behavior, the first time such a connection has been demonstrated in an animal, as they report March 21, 2024 online in Science. The article is titled “Adaptive Introgression of a Visual Preference Gene” and serves as the cover story of the March 22, 2024 hard-copy issue of the journal. The article is accompanied by a Perpective piece titled “A Genetic Cause of Male Mate Preference.”
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