To and fro in the archipelago: Repeated inter-island dispersal and New Guinea's orogeny affect diversification of Delias, the world's largest butterfly genus

Mol Phylogenet Evol. 2024 May:194:108022. doi: 10.1016/j.ympev.2024.108022. Epub 2024 Feb 5.


The world's largest butterfly genus Delias, commonly known as Jezebels, comprises ca. 251 species found throughout Asia, Australia, and Melanesia. Most species are endemic to islands in the Indo-Australian Archipelago or to New Guinea and nearby islands in Melanesia, and many species are restricted to montane habitats over 1200 m. We inferred an extensively sampled and well-supported molecular phylogeny of the group to better understand the spatial and temporal dimensions of its diversification. The remarkable diversity of Delias evolved in just ca. 15-16 Myr (crown age). The most recent common ancestor of a clade with most of the species dispersed out of New Guinea ca. 14 Mya, but at least six subsequently diverging lineages dispersed back to the island. Diversification was associated with frequent dispersal of lineages among the islands of the Indo-Australian Archipelago, and the divergence of sister taxa on a single landmass was rare and occurred only on the largest islands, most notably on New Guinea. We conclude that frequent inter-island dispersal during the Neogene-likely facilitated by frequent sea level change-sparked much diversification during that period. Many extant New Guinea lineages started diversifying 5 Mya, suggesting that orogeny facilitated their diversification. Our results largely agree with the most recently proposed species group classification system, and we use our large taxon sample to extend this system to all described species. Finally, we summarize recent insights to speculate how wing pattern evolution, mimicry, and sexual selection might also contribute to these butterflies' rapid speciation and diversification.

Keywords: Aposematism; Biogeographic stochastic mapping; Divergence dating; Indo-Australian archipelago; Lepidoptera; Sequence capture.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Australia
  • Butterflies* / genetics
  • Ecosystem
  • New Guinea
  • Phylogeny