Open Access Research article

Polyphyly and gene flow between non-sibling Heliconius species

Vanessa Bull12, Margarita Beltrán124, Chris D Jiggins24, W Owen McMillan3, Eldredge Bermingham2 and James Mallet1*

Author Affiliations

1 Galton Laboratory, Department of Biology, University College London, 4 Stephenson Way, London NW1 2HE, UK

2 Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Apartado 2072, Balboa, Panama

3 Departamento de Biología, Universidad de Puerto Rico, P.O.Box 23360, San Juan, PR 00931-3360, Puerto Rico

4 Institute of Cell, Animal & Population Biology, University of Edinburgh, King's Buildings, West Mains Road, Edinburgh EH9 3JT, UK

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Biology 2006, 4:11  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-4-11

Published: 21 April 2006



The view that gene flow between related animal species is rare and evolutionarily unimportant largely antedates sensitive molecular techniques. Here we use DNA sequencing to investigate a pair of morphologically and ecologically divergent, non-sibling butterfly species, Heliconius cydno and H. melpomene (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae), whose distributions overlap in Central and Northwestern South America.


In these taxa, we sequenced 30–45 haplotypes per locus of a mitochondrial region containing the genes for cytochrome oxidase subunits I and II (CoI/CoII), and intron-spanning fragments of three unlinked nuclear loci: triose-phosphate isomerase (Tpi), mannose-6-phosphate isomerase (Mpi) and cubitus interruptus (Ci) genes. A fifth gene, dopa decarboxylase (Ddc) produced sequence data likely to be from different duplicate loci in some of the taxa, and so was excluded. Mitochondrial and Tpi genealogies are consistent with reciprocal monophyly, whereas sympatric populations of the species in Panama share identical or similar Mpi and Ci haplotypes, giving rise to genealogical polyphyly at the species level despite evidence for rapid sequence divergence at these genes between geographic races of H. melpomene.


Recent transfer of Mpi haplotypes between species is strongly supported, but there is no evidence for introgression at the other three loci. Our results demonstrate that the boundaries between animal species can remain selectively porous to gene flow long after speciation, and that introgression, even between non-sibling species, can be an important factor in animal evolution. Interspecific gene flow is demonstrated here for the first time in Heliconius and may provide a route for the transfer of switch-gene adaptations for Müllerian mimicry. The results also forcefully demonstrate how reliance on a single locus may give an erroneous picture of the overall genealogical history of speciation and gene flow.