The process of mate selection in butterflies is influenced by genetic factors, according to a study led by evolutionary biologist Richard Merrill from LMU Munich, in collaboration with researchers from Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, Colombia, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, published in Science. This study utilized the diverse warning patterns found in various species of Heliconius butterflies to explore the genetic underpinnings of mate choice preferences. Heliconius butterflies, renowned for their vibrant wing patterns, employ these designs not only to deter predators but also as crucial signals during mate selection. In this research, scientists identified a gene directly associated with evolutionary changes in visually guided behavior, marking the first demonstration of such a link in an animal.

To conduct their investigation, researchers conducted numerous behavioral experiments to probe the mating preferences of three Heliconius species in Colombia: Heliconius melpomene and Heliconius timareta, characterized by striking red wing bands, and Heliconius cydno, distinguished by a white wing band. The findings revealed that males across all three species exhibited a preference for partners resembling themselves, with no discernible differences in preferences between the two more distantly related red species. Through genomic analyses, the researchers illustrated that the preference for red females is tied to a genomic region where hybridization between these two red species led to the exchange of genetic material.

Matteo Rossi, who spearheaded the butterfly research alongside doctoral candidate Alexander Hausmann in Merrill’s lab, remarked, “We successfully identified a gene, named ‘regucalcin1,’ as the genetic determinant controlling visual preference in these butterflies. Silencing ‘regucalcin1’ resulted in a reduction of courtship towards conspecific females, providing direct evidence of the gene’s influence on behavior.” Further investigations by the scientific team indicated that ‘regucalcin1’ had been transferred from H. melpomene to H. timareta at some point in their evolutionary history. Carolina Pardo-Diaz, Dean of Biology at Universidad del Rosario and a lead author of the study, commented, “We had long suspected that the gene responsible for red coloration was introduced through hybridization between species, and our findings support this hypothesis.”

Pardo-Diaz added, “Finally confirming this and pinpointing the specific gene involved is truly groundbreaking.” The presence of ‘regucalcin1’ enhanced the appeal of red females and consequently bolstered the reproductive success of H. timareta. Merrill emphasized, “In nature, variations in visual preferences influence mating choices among animals.” He concluded, “Our results establish, for the first time, a direct link between a specific visual preference and a particular gene, highlighting the significant role hybridization can play in the evolution of these behaviors.”

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