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Evolution. 2015 Mar;69(3):666-82. doi: 10.1111/evo.12606. Epub 2015 Mar 11.

Flash signal evolution in Photinus fireflies: character displacement and signal exploitation in a visual communication system.

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Department of Plant Biology, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, 30602.


Animal communication is an intriguing topic in evolutionary biology. In this comprehensive study of visual signal evolution, we used a phylogenetic approach to study the evolution of the flash communication system of North American fireflies. The North American firefly genus Photinus contains 35 described species with simple ON-OFF visual signals, and information on habitat types, sympatric congeners, and predators. This makes them an ideal study system to test hypotheses on the evolution of male and female visual signal traits. Our analysis of 34 Photinus species suggests two temporal pattern generators: one for flash duration and one for flash intervals. Reproductive character displacement was a main factor for signal divergence in male flash duration among sympatric Photinus species. Male flash pattern intervals (i.e., the duration of the dark periods between signals) were positively correlated with the number of sympatric Photuris fireflies, which include predators of Photinus. Females of different Photinus species differ in their response preferences to male traits. As in other communication systems, firefly male sexual signals seem to be a compromise between optimizing mating success (sexual selection) and minimizing predation risk (natural selection). An integrative model for Photinus signal evolution is proposed.


Behavior; phylogenetics; predation; selection-natural; selection-sexual; signaling/courtship

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