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Insect communication

Polarized light as a butterfly mating signal

This optical feature of some iridescent wings catches a suitor's eye in the deep forest.


Iridescent butterfly scales are visually stunning structures that reflect highly saturated colour. They also create an array of non-chromatic optical phenomena, such as polarization, polarization mixing and highly directional flashes1,2, but the ecological purpose of these effects is unclear3,4. Here we show that polarized light is used in mate recognition by Heliconius butterflies, a genus that is known to rely on visual cues in sexual selection and speciation5. This terrestrial example of exploitation of polarized light may have adaptive value in dense forest, where illumination varies greatly in spectrum and intensity.

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Figure 1: Polarized iridescent patterning of the butterfly Heliconius cydno (top) compared with H. melpomene malleti (bottom), whose wings do not show polarized iridescence.
Figure 2: Response of male Heliconius cydno and H. melpomene malleti butterflies to polarized and depolarized views of female butterfly wings.

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Correspondence to Alison Sweeney.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Sweeney, A., Jiggins, C. & Johnsen, S. Polarized light as a butterfly mating signal. Nature 423, 31–32 (2003).

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