Article image

Butterflies use visual and behavioral mimicry to avoid predators

Researchers have recently unveiled a fascinating aspect of butterfly evolution. They found that species which are inedible and mimic each other’s color patterns have also evolved similar flight behaviors to enhance their survival against predators. 

This discovery adds a new layer to our understanding of how butterflies use both visual and behavioral mimicry to communicate their unpalatability to predators.

Focus of the study 

The study, conducted by a team of researchers from the University of York, utilized high-speed video footage to analyze the flight of wild butterflies in South America. 

The experts examined the wing beat frequency and wing angles of 351 butterflies across 38 species, all of which fell into one of 10 distinct color pattern mimicry groups.

Key findings 

Surprisingly, the research revealed that the color pattern mimicry group a butterfly belonged to was a more significant determinant of its flight behavior than other factors such as habitat and wing shape. This indicates that butterflies within the same mimicry group exhibit more similar flight behaviors than those that are genetically closer but display different color patterns.

Behavioral mimicry is widespread 

“From an evolutionary perspective it makes sense to share the color pattern between species, to reduce the individual cost of educating predators to the fact that they don’t taste nice!” said study lead author Edd Page, a PhD student from the Department of Biology at York.

“Once a predator has tasted one, the visual clues on others indicate that they too are also inedible, but flight patterns are more complex and are influenced by several other factors such as the air temperature and the habitat the species fly in.”

“We wanted to see whether flight corresponded to color – could predators be driving the mimicry of flight as well as color patterns? We were surprised to find just how strong and widespread the behavioral mimicry is.”

The research specifically looked at the Heliconiini tribe, which consists of around 100 species and subspecies distributed across the Neotropics, each belonging to several distinct color pattern mimicry groups. Additionally, the study included a few species from the Ithomiine butterfly tribe, which diverged from the Heliconiini about 70 million years ago but share similar ‘tiger’ color patterns.

Fascinating insights 

“Sharing flight behavior across multiple species seems to reinforce this ‘don’t eat me’ message. It is fascinating that this behavior has evolved between distant relatives over a long period of time,” said Page, highlighting the study’s implications for understanding the evolutionary strategies of these butterflies.

Professor Kanchon Dasmahapatra from the University of York’s Department of Biology commented on the significance of the findings. “The extent of flight mimicry in this group of butterflies is amazing. It is a great example of how evolution shapes behavior, with selection from predators driving subtle changes which enhance the survival of individuals.”

This study – published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesnot only sheds light on the intricate ways in which butterflies have adapted to avoid predation but also sets the stage for further research into the genetic basis of such behavioral mimicry.

Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day