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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Jul 5, 1994; 91(14): 6491–6495.

Rapid morphological radiation and convergence among races of the butterfly Heliconius erato inferred from patterns of mitochondrial DNA evolution.


The neotropical Heliconius butterflies are famous examples of Müllerian mimicry, due to the diverse array of shared, brightly colored wing patterns that advertise the butterflies' unpalatability. The parallel geographical variation in these patterns within several widespread species has been invoked to support the controversial Pleistocene refugium hypothesis of tropical diversification. However, in no Heliconius species have either evolutionary rates or relationships among geographical races been explicitly examined. I present a phylogenetic hypothesis based on mitochondrial DNA sequences for 14 divergent races of Heliconius erato, which reveals that similar wing patterns have evolved rapidly and convergently within the species. There is a basal split between groups of races from east and west of the Andes, reflecting a vicariant separation at the base of the Pleistocene. Within each of these clades, sequence divergence is very low, and some haplotypes are shared between allopatric races with radically different wing patterns. The topology implies a simultaneous radiation of races in these two areas within the last 200,000 years. Ages for the clades are estimated by comparing sequence divergence to a plot of mitochondrial divergence in several arthropod taxa with independently dated divergence times. This plot is linear and suggests that mitochondrial DNA in arthropods evolves in a clocklike manner, at least initially, when sequence divergence is low.

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