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Keywords:

  • Assortative mating;
  • Heliconius;
  • mate choice;
  • reproductive isolation;
  • speciation

Premating behavioral isolation is increasingly recognized as an important part of ecological speciation, where divergent natural selection causes the evolution of reproductive barriers. A number of studies have now demonstrated that traits under divergent natural selection also affect mate preferences. However, studies of single species pairs only capture a snapshot of the speciation process, making it difficult to assess the role of mate preferences throughout the entire process. Heliconius butterflies are well known for their brightly colored mimetic warning patterns, and previous studies have shown that these patterns are also used as mate recognition cues. Here, we present mate preference data for four pairs of sister taxa, representing different stages of divergence, which together allow us to compare diverging mate preferences across the continuum of Heliconius speciation. Using a novel Bayesian approach, our results support a model of ecological speciation in which strong premating isolation arises early, but continues to increase throughout the continuum from polymorphic populations through to “good,” sympatric ecologically divergent species.