The genetic basis of structural colour variation in mimetic Heliconius butterflies

Melanie N. Brien, Juan Enciso-Romero, Victoria J. Lloyd, Emma V. Curran, Andrew J. Parnell, Carlos Morochz, Patricio A. Salazar, Pasi Rastas, Thomas Zinn, Nicola J. Nadeau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Structural colours, produced by the reflection of light from ultrastructures, have evolved multiple times in butterflies. Unlike pigmentary colours and patterns, little is known about the genetic basis of these colours. Reflective structures on wing-scale ridges are responsible for iridescent structural colour in many butterflies, including the Müllerian mimics Heliconius erato and Heliconius melpomene. Here, we quantify aspects of scale ultrastructure variation and colour in crosses between iridescent and non-iridescent subspecies of both of these species and perform quantitative trait locus (QTL) mapping. We show that iridescent structural colour has a complex genetic basis in both species, with offspring from crosses having a wide variation in blue colour (both hue and brightness) and scale structure measurements. We detect two different genomic regions in each species that explain modest amounts of this variation, with a sex-linked QTL in H. erato but not H. melpomene. We also find differences between species in the relationships between structure and colour, overall suggesting that these species have followed different evolutionary trajectories in their evolution of structural colour. We then identify genes within the QTL intervals that are differentially expressed between subspecies and/or wing regions, revealing likely candidates for genes controlling structural colour formation. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Genetic basis of adaptation and speciation: from loci to causative mutations’.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1855
Publication statusPublished - 30 May 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • QTL
  • gene expression
  • Heliconius
  • convergence
  • iridescence
  • structural colour


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