Divergence in brain composition during the early stages of ecological specialization in Heliconius butterflies

S H Montgomery, R M Merrill

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

27 Citations (Scopus)


During speciation across ecological gradients, diverging populations are exposed to contrasting sensory and spatial information that present new behavioural and perceptive challenges. These challenges may be met by heritable or environmentally induced changes in brain function which mediate behaviour. However, few studies have investigated patterns of neural divergence at the early stages of speciation, inhibiting our understanding of the relative importance of these processes. Here, we provide a novel case study. The incipient species pair, Heliconius erato and H. himera, are parapatric across an environmental and altitudinal gradient. Despite ongoing gene flow, these species have divergent ecological, behavioural and physiological traits. We demonstrate that these taxa also differ significantly in brain composition, in particular in the relative levels of investment in structures that process sensory information. These differences are not explained solely by environmentally-induced plasticity, but include heritable, nonallometric shifts in brain structure. We suggest these differences reflect divergence to meet the demands of contrasting sensory ecologies. This conclusion would support the hypothesis that the evolution of brain structure and function play an important role in facilitating the emergence of ecologically distinct species.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)571-582
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2017

Bibliographical note

© 2016 European Society For Evolutionary Biology. Journal of Evolutionary Biology © 2016 European Society For Evolutionary Biology.


  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Brain/anatomy & histology
  • Butterflies
  • Ecology
  • Gene Flow
  • Genetic Speciation
  • Phenotype


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