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Open Access Research article

Comparative population genetics of mimetic Heliconius butterflies in an endangered habitat; Brazil's Atlantic Forest

Priscila Albuquerque de Moura1, Swee-Peck Quek2, Márcio Z Cardoso3 and Marcus R Kronforst2*

Author Affiliations

1 Programa de Pós-graduação em Ecologia, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte, Natal, RN, Brazil

2 FAS Center for Systems Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge MA 02138, USA

3 Departamento de Botânica, Ecologia e Zoologia, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte, Natal, RN, Brazil

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BMC Genetics 2011, 12:9  doi:10.1186/1471-2156-12-9

Published: 20 January 2011



Brazil's Atlantic Forest is a biodiversity hotspot endangered by severe habitat degradation and fragmentation. Habitat fragmentation is expected to reduce dispersal among habitat patches resulting in increased genetic differentiation among populations. Here we examined genetic diversity and differentiation among populations of two Heliconius butterfly species in the northern portion of Brazil's Atlantic Forest to estimate the potential impact of habitat fragmentation on population connectivity in butterflies with home-range behavior.


We generated microsatellite, AFLP and mtDNA sequence data for 136 Heliconius erato specimens from eight collecting locations and 146 H. melpomene specimens from seven locations. Population genetic analyses of the data revealed high levels of genetic diversity in H. erato relative to H. melpomene, widespread genetic differentiation among populations of both species, and no evidence for isolation-by-distance.


These results are consistent with the hypothesis that the extensive habitat fragmentation along Brazil's Atlantic Forest has reduced dispersal of Heliconius butterflies among neighboring habitat patches. The results also lend support to the observation that fine-scale population genetic structure may be common in Heliconius. If such population structure also exists independent of human activity, and has been common over the evolutionary history of Heliconius butterflies, it may have contributed to the evolution of wing pattern diversity in the genus.