Mimicry Diversity, Evolution and Ecology of Ithomiine Communities

Ithomiines (see Systematics, Ithomiini) are a diverse component of butterfly communities in Neotropical forests, from sea level to more than 7,800 feet elevation. Ithomiines may comprise up to 50 percent of all butterflies in the forest understorey, and in many places up to 60 species fly together. Understanding how such diverse communities coexist is a central goal of evolutionary ecology, and ithomiines are an ideal study group. Ithomiine caterpillars feed almost exclusively on plants of the family Solanaceae, and each ithomiine species is usually confined to a single hostplant species. There is evidence of adaptive radiation, with more diverse plant clades supporting more diverse groups of ithomiines. Ithomiines are also notable for being unpalatable to predators and thus warningly colored, and extensively involved in mimicry rings. Keith Willmott is working with colleagues to document life history information for ithomiines, continue research into the assembly and maintenance of ithomiine communities, and to map and study patterns of ithomiine diversity throughout the Neotropics.

Learn more about Ithomiini Immature stages.

Anti-bat Evolution of Hawkmoths and Silk Moths

Hawkmoths and silk moths are some of the most charismatic groups of moths. Hawkmoths (Sphingidae) have incredible proboscises that can reach more than a foot in length. Silk moths (Saturniidae) have some of the largest wingspans in Lepidoptera, and both groups are ideal to understand life-history evolution. Building on the phylogeny of Rubin et al. (2018), Hamilton et al. (2018), and others, researchers are working to understand how such a remarkable group became so successful. Researchers are also using functional genomics of visual genes (Sondhi et al. 2021) to discovering how light and dark environments may have impacted their diversification. Through a recently-funded NSF grant with the Barber Lab at Boise State University, scientists are examining how the hindwing tails of luna moths fool bats during attack.

Phylogenomics of Lepidoptera

Butterflies and moths include over 160,000 describe species worldwide. Lepidoptera are important to life on Earth, as pollinators, vectors, and food for predators. Many species are important to humankind, such as the moths that produce silk for our clothing. Despite their importance, the evolutionary framework of butterflies and moths is still in question. McGuire Center researchers are using genomics (DNA sequence data) to understand the evolutionary history and diversification patterns of butterflies and moths. These studies can help us inform how climate and temperature influences butterfly and moth evolution, and how these factors may impact them in a changing climate.