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Variation of chemical compounds in wild Heliconiini reveals ecological factors involved in the evolution of chemical defenses in mimetic butterflies

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Sculfort, O 
de Castro, ECP 
Kozak, KM 
Bak, S 
Elias, M 


Ecology and Evolution published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Evolutionary convergence of color pattern in mimetic species is tightly linked with the evolution of chemical defenses. Yet, the evolutionary forces involved in natural variations of chemical defenses in aposematic species are still understudied. Herein, we focus on the evolution of chemical defenses in the butterfly tribe Heliconiini. These neotropical butterflies contain large concentrations of cyanogenic glucosides, cyanide-releasing compounds acting as predator deterrent. These compounds are either de novo synthesized or sequestered from their Passiflora host plant, so that their concentrations may depend on host plant specialization and host plant availability. We sampled 375 wild Heliconiini butterflies across Central and South America, covering 43% species of this clade, and quantify individual variations in the different CGs using liquid chromatography coupled with tandem mass spectrometry. We detected new compounds and important variations in chemical defenses both within and among species. Based on the most recent and well-studied phylogeny of Heliconiini, we show that ecological factors such as mimetic interactions and host plant specialization have a significant association with chemical profiles, but these effects are largely explained by phylogenetic relationships. Our results therefore suggest that shared ancestries largely contribute to chemical defense variation, pointing out at the interaction between historical and ecological factors in the evolution of Müllerian mimicry.



Heliconius, LC‐MS/MS, Müllerian mimicry, aposematism, cyanogenic glucosides, phylogenetic signal

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Ecology and Evolution

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European Research Council (339873)