Divergent warning patterns contribute to assortative mating between incipient Heliconius species



Theoretical models suggest that traits under divergent ecological selection, which also contribute to assortative mating, will facilitate speciation with gene flow. Evidence for these so-called “magic traits” now exists across a range of taxa. However, their importance during speciation will depend on the extent to which they contribute to reproductive isolation. Addressing this requires experiments to determine the exact cues involved as well as estimates of assortative mating in the wild. Heliconius butterflies are well known for their diversity of bright warning color patterns, and their amenability to experimental manipulation has provided an excellent opportunity to test their role in reproductive isolation. Here, we reveal that divergent color patterns contribute to mate recognition between the incipient species Heliconius himera and H. erato, a taxon pair for which assortative mating by color pattern has been demonstrated among wild individuals: First, we demonstrate that males are more likely to attempt to mate conspecific females; second, we show that males are more likely to approach pinned females that share their own warning pattern. These data are valuable as these taxa likely represent the early stages of speciation, but unusually also allow comparisons with rates of interbreeding between divergent ecologically relevant phenotypes measured in the wild.