Maintaining mimicry diversity: optimal warning colour patterns differ among microhabitats in Amazonian clearwing butterflies

02 Aug 2017

Mimicry is one of the best-studied examples of adaptation, and recent studies have provided new insights into the role of mimicry in speciation and diversification. Classical Müllerian mimicry theory predicts convergence in warning signal among protected species, yet tropical butterflies are exuberantly diverse in warning colour patterns, even within communities. We tested the hypothesis that microhabitat partitioning in aposematic butterflies and insectivorous birds can lead to selection for different colour patterns in different microhabitats and thus help maintain mimicry diversity. We measured distribution across flight height and topography for 64 species of clearwing butterflies (Ithomiini) and their co-mimics, and 127 species of insectivorous birds, in an Amazon rainforest community. For the majority of bird species, estimated encounter rates were non-random for the two most abundant mimicry rings. Furthermore, most butterfly species in these two mimicry rings displayed the warning colour pattern predicted to be optimal for anti-predator defence in their preferred microhabitats. These conclusions were supported by a field trial using butterfly specimens, which showed significantly different predation rates on colour patterns in two microhabitats. We therefore provide the first direct evidence to support the hypothesis that different mimicry patterns can represent stable, community-level adaptations to differing biotic environments.