• conservatism;
  • evolutionary age;
  • extinction;
  • range maps;
  • speciation;
  • subspecies richness;
  • suture zones;
  • terminal phylogenetic branch length

We compiled a large database of 58 059 point locality records for 70 species and 434 subspecies of heliconiine butterflies and used these data to test evolutionary hypotheses for their diversification. To study geographical patterns of diversity and contact zones, we mapped: (1) species richness; (2) mean molecular phylogenetic terminal branch length; (3) subspecies richness and the proportion of specimens that were subspecific hybrids, and (4) museum sampling effort. Heliconiine species richness is high throughout the Amazon region and peaks near the equator in the foothills and middle elevations of the eastern Andes. Mean phylogenetic terminal branch length is lowest in the eastern Andes and tends to be low in species-rich areas. By contrast, areas of high subspecies richness, where subspecies overlap in range and/or hybridize, are concentrated along the course of the Amazon River, with the eastern Andes slopes and foothills relatively depauperate in terms of local intraspecific phenotypic diversity. Spatial gradients in heliconiine species richness in the Neotropics are consistent with the hypothesis that species richness gradients are driven at least in part by variation in speciation and/or extinction rates, resulting in observed gradients in mean phylogenetic branch length, rather than via evolutionary age or niche conservatism alone. The data obtained in the present study, coupled with individual case studies of recently evolved Heliconius species, suggest that the radiation of heliconiine butterflies occurred predominantly on the eastern slopes of the Andes in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, as well as in the upper/middle Amazon basin. © 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, 105, 479–497.