Cracking the olfactory code of a butterfly: the scent of ageing

Ecol Lett. 2012 May;15(5):415-24. doi: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2012.01748.x. Epub 2012 Mar 6.


Although olfaction is a primary mode of communication, its importance in sexual selection remains understudied. Here, using the butterfly Bicyclus anynana, we address all the parameters of importance to sexual selection for a male olfactory signal. We show that variation in the male sex pheromone composition indicates male identity and male age. Courting males of different ages display small absolute (c. 200 ng) but large relative (100%) change of one specific pheromone component (hexadecanal) which, unlike the other components, showed no heritability. Females prefer to mate with mid-aged over younger males and the pheromone composition is sufficient to determine this preference. Surprisingly refined information is thus present in the male olfactory signal and is used for sexual selection. Our data also reveal that there may be no 'lek paradox' to resolve once the precise signal of importance to females is identified, as hexadecanal is, as expected, depleted in additive genetic variation.

Publication types

  • Letter
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aging / physiology
  • Animals
  • Butterflies / anatomy & histology
  • Butterflies / physiology*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Mating Preference, Animal / physiology*
  • Pheromones / chemistry
  • Smell / physiology


  • Pheromones