Neuroanatomical shifts mirror patterns of ecological divergence in three diverse clades of mimetic butterflies



Microhabitat partitioning in heterogenous environments can support more diverse communities but may expose partitioned species to distinct perceptual challenges. Divergence across microhabitats could therefore lead to local adaptation to contrasting sensory conditions across small spatial scales, but this aspect of community structuring is rarely explored. Diverse communities of ithomiine butterflies provide an example where closely related species partition tropical forests, where shifts in mimetic colouration are tightly associated with shifts in habitat preference. We test the hypothesis that these mimetic and ecological shifts are associated with distinct patterns of sensory neural investment by comparing brain structure across 164 individuals of 16 species from three ithomiine clades. We find distinct brain morphologies between Oleriina and Hypothyris, which are mimetically homogenous and occupy a single microhabitat. Oleriina, which occur in low-light micro-habitats, invests less in visual brain regions than Hypothyris, with one notable exception, Hyposcada anchiala, the only Oleriina sampled to have converged on mimicry rings found in Hypothyris. We also find that Napeogenes, which has diversified into a range of mimicry rings, shows intermediate patterns of sensory investment. We identify flight height as a critical factor shaping neuroanatomical diversity, with species that fly higher in the canopy investing more in visual structures. Our work suggests that the sensory ecology of species may be impacted by, and interact with, the ways in which communities of closely related organisms are adaptively assembled.
Date made available7 Jun 2022

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