Genomes reveal drastic and recurrent phenotypic divergence in firetip skipper butterflies (Hesperiidae: Pyrrhopyginae)

Jing Zhang, Qian Cong, Jinhui Shen, Ernst Brockmann, Nick V. Grishin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Biologists marvel at the powers of adaptive convergence, when distantly related animals look alike. While mimetic wing patterns of butterflies have fooled predators for millennia, entomologists inferred that mimics were distant relatives despite similar appearance. However, the obverse question has not been frequently asked. Who are the close relatives of mimetic butterflies and what are their features? As opposed to close convergence, divergence from a non-mimetic relative would also be extreme. When closely related animals look unalike, it is challenging to pair them. Genomic analysis promises to elucidate evolutionary relationships and shed light on molecular mechanisms of divergence. We chose the firetip skipper butterfly as a model due to its phenotypic diversity and abundance of mimicry. We sequenced and analysed whole genomes of nearly 120 representative species. Genomes partitioned this subfamily Pyrrhopyginae into five tribes (1 new), 23 genera and, additionally, 22 subgenera (10 new). The largest tribe Pyrrhopygini is divided into four subtribes (three new). Surprisingly, we found five cases where a uniquely patterned butterfly was formerly placed in a genus of its own and separately from its close relatives. In several cases, extreme and rapid phenotypic divergence involved not only wing patterns but also the structure of the male genitalia. The visually striking wing pattern difference between close relatives frequently involves disappearance or suffusion of spots and colour exchange between orange and blue. These differences (in particular, a transition between unspotted black and striped wings) happen recurrently on a short evolutionary time scale, and are therefore probably achieved by a small number of mutations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20190609
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1903
StatePublished - May 29 2019


  • Biodiversity
  • Higher classification
  • Mimicry rings
  • Museomics
  • Sinimustvalge pattern
  • Skipper butterflies

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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