Genetics of wing color pattern

Heliconius butterflies have a diverse range of color patterns which advertise their distastefulness to potential predators, also known as aposematism. Both unpalatable and palatable species often converge on the same wing color patterns, forming groups called mimicry rings which share warning colorations. Each of these patterns are found within a given area, creating a geographical pattern for the different color forms. 

One of our main research interests is focused on the evolution of this wing-pattern variation and pinpointing the key genetic players and processes involved in creating these patterns. 

Ecology and evolution

In addition to the evolution of mimicry and the genetic basis of divergent color patterns, Heliconius butterflies provide an ideal model for studying evolutionary ecology due to their innovative behavioral and neuroanatomical adaptations. Heliconius are unique within butterflies as the only genus that supplement their nectar diet by feeding on pollen, potentially facilitating their long reproductive lifespan. Additionally, Heliconius have the largest expansion of the mushroom bodies within Lepidoptera. These brain structures receive visual and olfactory information and play an important role in learning and memory.

Our students are currently studying the effects of pollen-eating on Heliconius longevity and aging, as well as the importance of the expansion of the mushroom bodies on their foraging behavior and cognitive abilities.