Since the time of Darwin, the remarkable mimicry seen among South American Heliconius butterflies has fascinated evolutionary biologists. These butterflies have a unique series of adaptations that include larvae that feed on toxic passion vines, and adults that collect pollen from specific flowers, but they are best known for the great diversity of bright wing patterns. In addition, different species converge on the same wing patterns in order to signal distastefulness to predators, one of the most famous examples of mimicry. By following the signatures of these patterns in the genome, we have shown that genes are often exchanged between species through hybridisation, and can be recombined into new combinations to generate novelty. The patterns of sharing among species challenge our understanding of species as the units of evolution.
Professor Chris Jiggins is the Director of Studies in Natural Sciences (Biological) at St John’s College, Cambridge and a Professor of Evolutionary Biology. His research interests include the study of adaption and speciation in the Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). In particular, how species converge due to mimicry, as a model for understanding the predictability of evolution, and the genetic and ecological causes of speciation.