Sex Differences in 20-Hydroxyecdysone Hormone Levels Control Sexual Dimorphism in Bicyclus anynana Wing Patterns

Mol Biol Evol. 2018 Feb 1;35(2):465-472. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msx301.


In contrast to the important role of hormones in the development of sexual traits in vertebrates (Cox RM, Stenquist DS, Calsbeek R. 2009. Testosterone, growth and the evolution of sexual size dimorphism. J Evol Biol. 22(8):1586-1598.), the differentiation of these traits in insects is attributed almost exclusively to cell-autonomous mechanisms controlled by members of the sex determination pathway (Verhulst EC, van de Zande L. 2015. Double nexus - doublesex is the connecting element in sex determination. Brief Funct Genomics 14(6):396-406.), such as doublesex. Although hormones can shape the development of sexual traits in insects, variation in hormone levels are not conclusively known to cause dimorphism in these traits (Prakash A, Monteiro A. 2016. Molecular mechanisms of secondary sexual trait development in insects. Curr Opin Insect Sci. 17:40-48.). Here, we show that butterflies use sex-specific differences in 20-hydroxyecdysone hormone titers to create sexually dimorphic wing ornaments. Females of the dry season (DS) form of Bicyclus anynana display a larger sexual ornament on their wings than males, whereas in the wet season form both sexes have similarly sized ornaments (Prudic KL, Jeon C, Cao H, Monteiro A. 2011. Developmental plasticity in sexual roles of butterfly species drives mutual sexual ornamentation. Science 331(6013):73-75.). High levels of circulating 20-hydroxyecdysone during larval development in DS females and wet season forms cause proliferation of the cells fated to give rise to this wing ornament, and results in sexual dimorphism in the DS forms. This study advances our understanding of how the environment regulates sex-specific patterns of plasticity of sexual ornaments and conclusively shows that hormones can play a role in the development of secondary sexual traits in insects, just like they do in vertebrates.

Keywords: 20E; Bicyclus anynana; butterfly; endocrinology; insect; secondary sexual traits; sex hormone; sexual dimorphism; sexual traits.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Butterflies / metabolism*
  • Ecdysterone / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Pigmentation*
  • Seasons
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Wings, Animal


  • Ecdysterone