Wing polymorphism of butterflies provides a good system in which to study adaptation. The Asian Batesian mimic butterfly Papilio polytes has unmelanized, putative mimetic red spots on its black hind wings. The size of those red spots is non-heritable but it is highly polymorphic, the adaptive significance of which is unknown. We hypothesized that under strong ultraviolet (UV) irradiation, butterflies develop a wider melanized black area to protect the wings from UV damage, and as a result express smaller mimetic red spots. Our field survey on Okinawa Island revealed a negative relationship between the sizes of the red spot and the black area in the wings. The size varied seasonally and was negatively correlated with the intensity of solar UV radiation at the time of capture. Laboratory experiments revealed that the size was reduced by strong UV irradiation not only of the eggs and larvae, but also of their mothers through a putative epigenetic mechanism. The flexible phenotypic expression of the red spots in P. polytes suggests a trade-off between protection against UV damage and predation avoidance, and provides a new insight into the evolution of Batesian mimicry.
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