Specialized avian predators repeatedly attack novel color morphs of Heliconius butterflies

Evolution. 2004 Dec;58(12):2783-7. doi: 10.1111/j.0014-3820.2004.tb01629.x.


The persistence of Müllerian mimicry and geographically distinct wing patterns, as observed in many Heliconius species (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae), is difficult to explain from a predator's perspective: predator selection against locally rare patterns must persist despite avoidance learning. Maintaining spatial color-pattern polymorphism requires local pattern avoidance, fine-scale discrimination among similar wing patterns, and repeated attacks on novel color patterns. I tested for these behaviors by presenting 80 adult rufous-tailed jacamars (Galbula ruficauda) with three morphs of Heliconius butterflies, and then presenting the same suite of butterflies to 46 of these jacamars between four and 429 days later. These trials offer the first direct evidence of the selective predator behavior required to maintain aposematic polymorphism: jacamars avoid local aposematic morphs while repeatedly attacking similar but novel morphs over time.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Butterflies / anatomy & histology
  • Butterflies / physiology*
  • Models, Biological
  • Pigmentation / physiology*
  • Predatory Behavior / physiology*
  • Selection, Genetic
  • Spectrophotometry
  • Venezuela
  • Wings, Animal / anatomy & histology
  • Wings, Animal / physiology