Get access

Landscape structure and phenotypic plasticity in flight morphology in the butterfly Pararge aegeria


  • Thomas Merckx,

  • Hans Van Dyck

T. Merckx, Dept of Biology, Univ. of Antwerp, Universiteitsplein 1, BE-2610 Antwerp, Belgium – H. Van Dyck, Biodiversity Research Centre, Ecology and Biogeography Unit, Catholic Univ. of Louvain (UCL), Croix du Sud 4, BE-1348 Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. – Present address for TM: Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Dept of Zoology, Univ. of Oxford, Tubney House, Abingdon Road, Tubney, Abingdon, UK, OX13 5QL, (


In evolutionary time, varying environments may lead to different morphs as a result of genetic adaptation and divergence or phenotypic plasticity. Landscapes that differ in the extent of habitat fragmentation may provide different selection regimes for dispersal, but also for other ecological functions. Several studies on flying insects have shown differences in flight morphology between landscapes, but whether such differences result from plastic responses have rarely been tested. We did a reciprocal transplant experiment with offspring of speckled wood butterfly females (Parargeaegeria) from three types of landscape differing in fragmentation: woodland landscape, landscape with woodland fragments and agricultural landscape with only hedgerows. Young caterpillars were allowed to grow individually on potted host grasses in small enclosures under the three landscape conditions (split-brood design). Mortality in caterpillars was much higher in agricultural landscape compared to the other landscapes. Additive to the effect of landscape of development, landscape of origin also affected mortality rate in a similar way. Flight morphology of the adults resulting from the experiment differed significantly with landscape. Independent of the landscape of origin, males and females that developed in agricultural landscape were the heaviest and had the greatest wing loadings. Females that developed in agricultural landscape had higher relative thorax mass (i.e. greater flight muscle allocation) in line with adaptive predictions on altered dispersal behaviour with type of landscape. In males, relative thorax mass did not respond significantly relative to landscape of development, but males originating from landscape with woodland fragments allocated more into their thorax compared to males from the other types. We found significant G×E interactions for total dry mass and wing loading. Our results suggest the existence of phenotypic plasticity in butterfly flight morphology associated with landscape structure.