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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Phenotypic plasticity in the range-margin population of the lycaenid butterfly Zizeeria maha

Joji M Otaki1*, Atsuki Hiyama1, Masaki Iwata1 and Tadashi Kudo2

Author Affiliations

1 The BCPH Unit of Molecular Physiology, Department of Chemistry, Biology and Marine Science, Faculty of Science, University of the Ryukyus, 1 Senbaru, Nishihara, Okinawa 903-0213, Japan

2 Tsugaru Insect Club, 4-13-1 Aoyama, Hirosaki, Aomori 036-8062, Japan

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:252  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-252

Published: 19 August 2010



Many butterfly species have been experiencing the northward range expansion and physiological adaptation, probably due to climate warming. Here, we document an extraordinary field case of a species of lycaenid butterfly, Zizeeria maha, for which plastic phenotypes of wing color-patterns were revealed at the population level in the course of range expansion. Furthermore, we examined whether this outbreak of phenotypic changes was able to be reproduced in a laboratory.


In the recently expanded northern range margins of this species, more than 10% of the Z. maha population exhibited characteristic color-pattern modifications on the ventral wings for three years. We physiologically reproduced similar phenotypes by an artificial cold-shock treatment of a normal southern population, and furthermore, we genetically reproduced a similar phenotype after selective breeding of a normal population for ten generations, demonstrating that the cold-shock-induced phenotype was heritable and partially assimilated genetically in the breeding line. Similar genetic process might have occurred in the previous and recent range-margin populations as well. Relatively minor modifications expressed in the tenth generation of the breeding line together with other data suggest a role of founder effect in this field case.


Our results support the notion that the outbreak of the modified phenotypes in the recent range-margin population was primed by the revelation of plastic phenotypes in response to temperature stress and by the subsequent genetic process in the previous range-margin population, followed by migration and temporal establishment of genetically unstable founders in the recent range margins. This case presents not only an evolutionary role of phenotypic plasticity in the field but also a novel evolutionary aspect of range expansion at the species level.