Revealed: secrets of mimic butterfly’s wing pattern


London : The mocker swallowtail butterfly’s unique ability to hoodwink predators by sporting wing patterns and colours mimicking those of poisonous species is thanks to a developmental gene, say scientists.

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In a new study, biologists contend that an understanding of how these mimic patterns evolved may shed new light on whether such evolutionary changes occurred in small gradual steps, or in sudden leaps.

A team of biologists used molecular tags and DNA sequencing to pinpoint the part of its genetic code that determines wing pattern and colour.

Their study suggests that a developmental gene called “invected”, known to be involved in embryonic development of butterflies, is behind the allocation of different wing patterns in mocker swallowtails, or Papilio dardanus.

Alfried Vogler of Imperial College and a co-author of the study explained that further investigation was required to figure out exactly how this gene works.

“However, identifying the area of the genome involved in this process is just the first step. We now need to look in more detail at the differences in the ‘invected gene’, and another gene located next to it, to find out exactly how they produce the different forms,” he said.

In the 1950s, scientists suspected the presence of a “genetic switch” responsible for possible wing patterns in an individual butterfly, but until now the location and identity of these genes have remained a mystery.

The mocker swallowtail is found in sub-Saharan Africa and has a wingspan of up to and four-and-a-quarter inches.

Only females of the species exhibit the wing patterns that mimic other butterflies. All the males are yellow, with black markings and have the typical tails of most swallowtail butterflies.