Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

African Swallowtail butterfly: Genetic secrets of nature's master of mimicry unraveled

Date:
June 11, 2014
Source:
University of Exeter
Summary:
Scientists investigating how one of the greatest shape shifters in the natural world is able to trick predators to avoid being eaten have identified the gene behind the fascinating feat. The African Swallowtail butterfly, also known as the 'Mocker Swallowtail' or the 'Flying Handkerchief,' can appear to change both color and shape.

Scientists have discovered the genetic switch that allows female swallowtails to look like different Monarch butterflies and thus avoid being eaten.
Credit: Richard ffrench-Constant

Scientists investigating how one of the greatest shape shifters in the natural world is able to trick predators to avoid being eaten have identified the gene behind the fascinating feat.

The African Swallowtail butterfly, also known as the 'Mocker Swallowtail' or the 'Flying Handkerchief,' can appear to change both colour and shape.

Males of the species fly boldly around the tree tops, their rapid flight making them look like shaking handkerchiefs, however females lurk in the bushes and pretend to be examples of Monarch butterflies that are nasty to eat.

The females mimic different Monarchs in different parts of Africa and how they do this has long been a mystery. In an international collaboration involving scientists from the Natural History Museum, Imperial College London, the University of Cambridge and researchers in Nairobi, Paris and Jena in Germany, The University of Exeter's Professor Richard ffrench-Constant (correct spelling) has helped solve the genetic switch that allows female swallowtails to look like different Monarch butterflies and thus avoid being eaten.

"This mimicry is not just a simple change of colour and pattern," says Prof ffrench-Constant, "but the females also lose their characteristic swallow tails and even fly slowly like Monarch butterflies."

This unique combination of shape-shifting makes the mimicry more convincing for predatory birds and once they learn to avoid one warning pattern, they will then avoid similar looking butterflies.

Dr Martijn Timmermans of Imperial College London, who led the study, said: "The wings of the Mocker Swallowtails have bewildered biologists for almost a century. By pinpointing the switch, we have revealed a unique mechanism. It is really exciting to show that all this diversity is determined by variation in just a single gene."

The genetic switch appears to be the gene called 'engrailed', a gene previously shown to be important in patterning the early embryo of fruit flies. The engrailed gene belongs to a family of genes called transcription factors that switch on networks of genes responsible for all aspects of development.

Previously the engrailed gene has been shown to be important in setting up patterning in developing fruit fly embryos, however, nature seems to have redeployed this gene into much later patterning -- the patterning of a butterfly wing. This allows the engrailed gene to function both early in embryo development and then later as a master mimicry switch gene by changing the colour and shape of the butterflies wing.

"We still have a lot to learn" adds ffrench-Constant, "we don't really understand how this gene can control such a wide range of characteristics and how this mimicry is limited only to the female of the species. However, such questions are bound to provide significant challenges for the team in the future."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Exeter. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. M. J. T. N. Timmermans, S. W. Baxter, R. Clark, D. G. Heckel, H. Vogel, S. Collins, A. Papanicolaou, I. Fukova, M. Joron, M. J. Thompson, C. D. Jiggins, R. H. ffrench-Constant, A. P. Vogler. Comparative genomics of the mimicry switch in Papilio dardanus. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2014; 281 (1787): 20140465 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.0465

Cite This Page:

University of Exeter. "African Swallowtail butterfly: Genetic secrets of nature's master of mimicry unraveled." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 June 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140611093805.htm>.
University of Exeter. (2014, June 11). African Swallowtail butterfly: Genetic secrets of nature's master of mimicry unraveled. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 24, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140611093805.htm
University of Exeter. "African Swallowtail butterfly: Genetic secrets of nature's master of mimicry unraveled." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140611093805.htm (accessed September 24, 2014).

Share This



More Plants & Animals News

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Raw: Ice Age Wooly Mammoth Remains for Sale

Raw: Ice Age Wooly Mammoth Remains for Sale

AP (Sep. 23, 2014) A rare, well-preserved skeleton of a woolly mammoth is going on sale at Summers Place Auctions hope the 11.5-foot tall, almost intact specimen will fetch between $245,000 to $409,000. (Sept. 23) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Fox Bites Conn. Student And School Staffers In Rare Attack

Fox Bites Conn. Student And School Staffers In Rare Attack

Newsy (Sep. 23, 2014) A fox attacked a second-grade boy at a Connecticut elementary school Monday. It also attacked two school staff members and a woman and her dog. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Will Living Glue Be A Thing?

Will Living Glue Be A Thing?

Newsy (Sep. 23, 2014) Using proteins derived from mussels, engineers at MIT have made a supersticky underwater adhesive. They're now looking to make "living glue." Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Raw: Tiger Kills Man at India Zoo

Raw: Tiger Kills Man at India Zoo

AP (Sep. 23, 2014) A white tiger killed a young man who climbed over a fence at the New Delhi zoo and jumped into the animal's enclosure on Tuesday, a spokesman said. (Sept. 23) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins