Solving the Puzzles of Mimicry in Nature; Analyzing the DNA of dangerous butterflies who copy other unpalatable species, scientists have found that some shared color-controlling genes, signaling past interbreeding

March 11, 2013

Solving the Puzzles of Mimicry in Nature



The wing patterns of two unpalatable butterfly species, Heliconius erato, top row, and Heliconius melpomene, show striking similarities. DNA studies suggest that some species generated similar patterns independently; others share color-controlling genes.

Perhaps no destination has attracted and inspired more great naturalists than Brazil. Charles Darwin, on his epic voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle, first made landfall at Bahia in 1832; two fellow Englishmen, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates, arrived at Pará in 1848. Wallace roamed the Amazon for four years, and the indefatigable Bates for 11.

In 1852, a naturalist named Fritz Müller arrived from Germany. Much less known today, Müller, unlike his English contemporaries, moved to Brazil with his wife and young child and had no intention of ever returning to Prussia. A freethinker who refused to swear an oath to God required for his medical graduation, Müller traded a medical career in Europe for a mud-floor hut at the edge of virgin forest in the Blumenau colony in Santa Catarina.

While Darwin and Wallace would conceive of the theory of evolution by natural selection, its acceptance was aided greatly by Bates and Müller. And thanks to Bates and Müller, perhaps no group of animals contributed more to the early growth of evolutionary science than butterflies. Their ideas continue to inspire naturalists today and have led to surprising new insights into how evolution works.

Both men found Brazil ablaze with colorful butterflies. Bates noticed among his collections certain species whose bright wing patterns closely resembled those of other butterfly families in the area. In puzzling out why one species would mimic another, he realized that harmless butterflies were mimicking noxious species that were unpalatable to birds and lizards, and therefore not attacked by predators.

Only a few years after Darwin published “On the Origin of Species,” Bates suggested that this sort of mimicry — now called “Batesian” — was timely proof of the principle of natural selection.

While Bates was a full-time collector, Müller was initially occupied with more basic concerns. For his first few years in Brazil, he eked out a living as a farmer, raising chickens and pigs and trapping game, while enduring floods and fending off hostile indigenous tribes, jaguars and tropical diseases. As the only person in his settlement with medical training, it fell to him to attend to neighbors who had been impaled with five-foot-long arrows.

As his family expanded, eventually to six daughters, Müller moved to a coastal town to teach mathematics, natural history, and even some physics and chemistry. His position gave him a chance to explore more intellectual pursuits, and there he discovered Darwin’s new theories.

“Origin” so transformed Müller’s understanding of nature that he was inspired to write his own book, “Für Darwin,” that presented facts and arguments in favor of his theory, including Müller’s own observations on Brazilian plants and animals. The two men struck up a lively and warm correspondence that would last 17 years, until Darwin’s death. Darwin referred to Müller as the “prince of observers,” and although they never met, Müller considered Darwin a second father.

Müller’s crucial observation occurred after he returned to living in the forest. It was a new twist on mimicry. He noticed that unpalatable butterflies were also mimicking other species of unpalatable butterflies in the same area. If they were already unpalatable, he wondered, what added advantage was there to mimicking other species?

It dawned on him that unpalatable mimics would enjoy strength in numbers: Their unpalatability had to be learned by naïve predators, and mimicking species would share the cost of those lessons, whereas a uniquely patterned unpalatable species would bear the full cost. He showed through simple algebra that two or more unpalatable species would each gain an advantage through a common pattern.

Natural selection thus explained why different species’ wing patterns would converge. But how were such similar but complex wing color patterns generated by different species? That was a much more difficult question, and its answer eluded scientists for nearly 150 years, until an international team of researchers recently revealed mimicry’s innermost secrets.

The most striking and famous examples of what is still called “Müllerian mimicry” involve Heliconius butterflies in South and Central America. In many instances, the wing patterns of different species in the same area are remarkably similar. And even more remarkable, each species may exhibit several different wing patterns, each specific to a given area. The wing patterns are so similar that it is hard to tell species apart from even a short distance — and that is the point.

There are two fundamentally different ways Müllerian mimicry could evolve: Either each species independently evolved mutations that led to very similar wing patterns, or patterning genes were exchanged among species.

Several genes controlling the production of the wing patterns have now been identified, enabling researchers to distinguish between these alternatives. The answer? Both mechanisms have been at work.

By analyzing the DNA sequences in two mimicking Heliconius species distributed across South America, researchers could determine that each species had independently evolved up to 20 different patterns that were nearly identical in each species. But in more closely related mimicking species, they found that color-controlling genes had been exchanged.

These discoveries are equally interesting. It is astonishing that so many patterns could be independently generated and replicated in different species. And it is surprising to have species swapping genes in the Amazon. After all, the inability to breed successfully with other groups has long been an operational definition of species.

But as we peer into genomes, we continue to detect evidence of past interbreeding — between Darwin’s finches, for example, and even between Neanderthals and our own species, Homo sapiens. Even if such interspecies matings are rare, a gene that confers a strong advantage, like mimicry, can spread quickly through a population.

One of my favorite observations about scientific progress was offered by the Nobel physicist Jean Baptiste Perrin, who said that the key to any advance was to be able “to explain the complex visible by some simple invisible.” After being shrouded in mystery for more than a century, the revelation of the invisible genes that have generated such diversity is an exquisite example of the maxim.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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