Diadem Butterflies Disguise Themselves as Toxic Twins, Study Reveals

Scientists have unraveled the secret behind the remarkable resemblance between female Diadem butterflies and their toxic look-alikes, the African Queen butterflies. This clever deception, known as Batesian mimicry, helps Diadems avoid becoming bird food.

Diadems are actually quite tasty to predators, but they've evolved to mimic the African Queen's vibrant colors and wing patterns, making them appear unappetizing.  A new study, conducted by a team from the Universities of Exeter, Edinburgh, and Cambridge alongside the Mpala Research Centre in Kenya, sheds light on how this impressive mimicry works.

The surprising discovery? The two butterfly species achieve their similar appearances through completely different genes.

"This research provides a compelling example of convergent evolution," explains Professor Richard French-Constant from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter. "In essence, these butterflies have independently evolved similar traits despite having distinct genetic blueprints."

The study also revealed a fascinating twist: "adaptive atavism." This means the Diadem butterflies have reawakened an ancient wing pattern present in their ancestors and repurposed it to mimic the African Queen. This finding significantly improves our understanding of how palatable species mimic toxic ones.

Interestingly, the mimicry is only present in female Diadems. Males, on the other hand, sport distinctive dark wings with large white patches. Scientists believe this is because attracting mates takes priority over camouflage for males.

"It's remarkable," says Dr. Dino Martins, former director of Mpala during the butterfly collection. "These butterflies, despite sharing the same genetic makeup, appear completely different based on sex."

The research team employed innovative techniques to unlock these secrets. They used a combination of "haplotagging," a special DNA sequencing method, and a new analytical tool called "Wrath" to examine the genomes of multiple butterflies from both species.

"These cutting-edge techniques provide unprecedented insights into the fascinating world of Batesian mimicry at the molecular and population genetics level," explains Dr. Simon Martin, a co-author from the University of Edinburgh.

The findings, published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution under the title "Transposable element insertions are associated with Batesian mimicry in the pantropical butterfly Hypolimnas misippus," offer a significant leap forward in our understanding of how evolution shapes the natural world.

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