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Study unwraps butterfly disguises

University research has helped show how butterflies masquerade as poisonous species to ward off predators.

Researchers from the University, as part of a European team, studied genes linked to the colour and pattern of butterfly wings.

They focused on a type of butterfly in the Amazon whose wing patterns mimic those of other species that are poisonous to birds.

By disguising themselves as poisonous species, the impostor butterflies avoid being eaten by birds.

Groups of genes

Researchers found that the appearance of butterflies wings’ is controlled by many genes, all working together.

This collection of genes, found grouped together in the insect’s DNA, is known as a supergene.

The genes’ proximity in the DNA means they are more likely to be passed on as a group from one generation to the next.

This enables butterflies to inherit wing patterns that protect them from predators.

Multiple benefits

Having the supergene not only helps butterflies inherit favourable wing patterns, but also helps prevent combinations of genes that could generate patterns that might attract predators.

Wing pattern mimicry was witnessed during the industrial revolution in Britain.

During this time, the wings of the Peppered Moth evolved from white to black, enabling the moth to avoid predators amid the sooty environment.

Natural trickery

The evolutionary mystery surrounding butterfly wings has baffled many scientists including Charles Darwin.

The study was published in the journal Nature and funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

These butterflies are the transformers of the insect world. A single genetic switch allows them to morph into several different forms – it is amazing.

Dr Mathieu JoronFormer researcher, School of Biological Sciences

Home page photo credit: Mathieu Joron