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Open Access Commentary

Selection on the wing in Heliconius butterflies

Delphine Legrand12*, Virginie M Stevens13 and Michel Baguette12

Author Affiliations

1 UMR 7204, MNHN-CNRS-UPMC, Laboratoire CERSP, 75005 Paris, France

2 CNRS USR 2936 Station d'Ecologie Expérimentale du CNRS à Moulis, 09200 Moulis, France

3 FNRS-F.S.R. & Université de Liège, Unité de Biologie du Comportement, Liège, Belgium

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BMC Genetics 2011, 12:31  doi:10.1186/1471-2156-12-31

Published: 28 March 2011


To what extent population structure favours the establishment of new phenotypes within a species remains a fundamental question in evolutionary studies. By reducing gene flow, habitat fragmentation is a major factor shaping the genetic structuring of populations, favouring isolation of small populations in which drift may rapidly change frequencies of new variants. When these variants provide advantages to individuals, the combined effect of selection and drift can lead to rapid shifts in phenotypes. In a study published in BMC Genetics, Albuquerque de Moura et al. asked whether such a general pattern of population structure can be observed in Heliconius species, which could have strong implication in the evolution of colour pattern diversification in these butterflies. In this commentary we discuss the potential roles of these three processes (drift, selection and dispersal) on the evolution of Heliconius wing patterns in regard to the findings of a common fine-scale population structure within the co-mimetic species H. melpomene and H. erato. Indeed, a general pattern of population subdivision in the history of these two species may have provoked the major phenotypical shifts observed in their wing colour patterns. The suggestion that coupled environmental pressures (counter-selection of dispersal and selection on co-evolved traits) could be responsible for identical genetic differentiation profiles in H. erato and H. melpomene clearly merits further investigations using both detailed population genetic (including landscape genetic) and ecological studies.