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Three-butterfly system provides a field test of müllerian mimicry

Nature volume 409, pages 338340 (18 January 2001) | Download Citation



In 1879, Müller proposed that two brightly coloured distasteful butterfly species (co-models) that share a single warning-colour pattern would benefit by spreading the selective burden of educating predators1,2,3,4,5. The mutual benefit of sharing warning signals among distasteful species, so-called müllerian mimicry, is supported by comparative evidence2,3, theoretical studies5,6 and laboratory simulations7; however, to date, this key exemplar of adaptive evolution has not been experimentally tested in the field. To measure natural selection generated by müllerian mimicry, I exploited the unusual polymorphism of Heliconius cydno (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae)8. Here I show increased survival of H. cydno morphs that match locally abundant monomorphic co-model species. This study demonstrates müllerian mimicry in the field. It also shows that müllerian mimicry with several co-models generates geographically divergent selection, which explains the existence of polymorphism in distasteful species with warning coloration9.

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I thank D. Schluter, L. Gilbert, M. Kirkpatrick, M. Singer, R. Dudley, U. Mueller, P. Schappert, W. O. McMillan and S. Bennett for valuable discussion and critical review of this manuscript, and H. Knechtel, C. Chapman, J. Page, S. Zaklan and K. Holston for field assistance. This research is supported by Earthwatch and its volunteer corps, by L. Gilbert and, in part, by a National Science and Engineering Research Council grant to D. Schluter.

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    • Durrell D. Kapan

    Present address: Departemento de Biologia, Universidad de Puerto Rico—Rio Piedras, San Juan 00931-3360, Puerto Rico


  1. Centre for Biodiversity Research, Department of Zoology, University of British Colombia, Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z4, Canada, and Section of Integrative Biology, Patterson Laboratories, University of Texas, Austin, Texas 78712-1064 , USA


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Correspondence to Durrell D. Kapan.

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