Visual mate preference evolution during butterfly speciation is linked to neural processing genes

Matteo Rossi, Alexander Hausmann, Timothy Thurman, Stephen H Montgomery, Riccardo Papa, Chris Jiggins, Owen McMillan, Richard Merrill*

*Corresponding author for this work

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

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Many animal species remain separate not because their individuals fail to produce viable hybrids but because they “choose” not to mate. However, we still know very little of the genetic mechanisms underlying changes in these mate preference behaviours. Heliconius butterflies display bright warning patterns, which they also use to recognize conspecifics. Here, we couple QTL for divergence in visual preference behaviours with population genomic and gene expression analyses of neural tissue (central brain, optic lobes and ommatidia) across development in two sympatric Heliconius species. Within a region containing 200 genes, we identify five genes that are strongly associated with divergent visual preferences. Three of these have previously been implicated in key components of neural signalling (specifically an ionotropic glutamate receptor and two regucalcins), and overall our candidates suggest shifts in behaviour involve changes in visual integration or processing. This would allow preference evolution without altering perception of the wider environment.
Original languageEnglish
Article number4763 (2020)
Number of pages10
JournalNature Communications
Issue number4763
Publication statusPublished - 21 Sep 2020


  • behavioural ecology
  • behavioural genetics
  • evolutionary genetics
  • speciation


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