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Speciation by hybridization in Heliconius butterflies

An Author Correction to this article was published on 15 March 2021

This article has been updated


Speciation is generally regarded to result from the splitting of a single lineage. An alternative is hybrid speciation, considered to be extremely rare, in which two distinct lineages contribute genes to a daughter species. Here we show that a hybrid trait in an animal species can directly cause reproductive isolation. The butterfly species Heliconius heurippa is known to have an intermediate morphology and a hybrid genome1, and we have recreated its intermediate wing colour and pattern through laboratory crosses between H. melpomene, H. cydno and their F1 hybrids. We then used mate preference experiments to show that the phenotype of H. heurippa reproductively isolates it from both parental species. There is strong assortative mating between all three species, and in H. heurippa the wing pattern and colour elements derived from H. melpomene and H. cydno are both critical for mate recognition by males.

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Figure 1: Geographic distributions and genetic differentiation between H. cydno, H. melpomene and H. heurippa.
Figure 2: Reconstruction of the H. heurippa wing pattern.
Figure 3: Relative probabilities of H. heurippa males approaching and courting colour pattern models.

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We thank E. García and the UNET for help at Paramillo Natural Park, San Cristóbal, Venezuela; R. Castillo, L. Pereira and O. Quintero for butterfly collecting; M. Guerra and L. González for help with the preparation of figures; N. Barton and F. Jiggins for discussion; and L. Gilbert and J. Mallet for inspiring us to study hybridization. This work was funded by the Marie-Curie Fellowships, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the Fondo Colombiano de Investigaciones Científicas y Proyectos Especiales Francisco Jose de Caldas COLCIENCIAS, Banco de la República, and private donations from Continautos S.A., Proficol El Carmen S.A., Didacol S.A., and F. Arango, Colombia. C.D.J. is supported financially by the Royal Society and by a grant from BBSRC.

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Correspondence to Jesús Mavárez or Mauricio Linares.

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The sequences have been deposited in GenBank under accession numbers DQ445384–DQ445414 (Distal-less) and DQ445416–DQ445457 (Invected). Reprints and permissions information is available at The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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This file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figures and Legends 1–8, and additional references. (PDF 681 kb)

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Mavárez, J., Salazar, C., Bermingham, E. et al. Speciation by hybridization in Heliconius butterflies. Nature 441, 868–871 (2006).

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