Vertical distribution, flight behavior, and evolution of wing morphology in Morpho butterflies


Dr. Ryan Hill: 0000-0001-8513-6545

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Journal of Animal Ecology


Biological Sciences









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1. Flight is a key innovation in the evolution of insects that is crucial to their dispersal, migration, territoriality, courtship and predator avoidance. Male butterflies have characteristic territoriality and courtship flight behaviours, and females use a characteristic flight behaviour when searching for host plants. This implies that selection acts on wing morphology to maximize flight performance for conducting important behaviours among sexes.

2. Butterflies in the genus Morpho are obvious components of neotropical forests, and many observations indicate that they show two broad categories of flight behaviour and flight height. Although species can be categorized as using gliding or flapping flight, and flying at either canopy or understorey height, the association of flight behaviour and flight height with wing shape evolution has never been explored.

3. Two clades within Morpho differ in flight behaviour and height. Males and females of one clade inhabit the forest understorey and use flapping flight, whereas in the other clade, males use gliding flight at canopy level and females use flapping flight in both canopy and understorey.

4. We used independent contrasts to answer whether wing shape is associated with flight behaviour and height. Given a single switch to canopy habitation and gliding flight, we compared contrasts for the node at which the switch to canopy flight occurred with the distribution of values in the two focal clades. We found significant changes in wing shape at the transition to canopy flight only in males, and no change in size for either sex. A second node within the canopy clade suggests that other factors may also be involved in wing shape evolution. Our results reinforce the hypothesis that natural selection acts differently on male and female butterfly wing shape and indicate that the transition to canopy flight cannot explain all wing shape diversity in Morpho.

5. This study provides a starting point for characterizing evolution of wing morphology in forest butterflies in the contexts of habitat selection and flight behaviour. Further, these observations suggest that exploring wing shape evolution for canopy and understorey species in other insects may help understand the effects of habitat destruction on biological diversity.