• courtship;
  • speciation;
  • female mate choice;
  • genetic structure;
  • Lepidoptera: Leptidea;
  • species concept


Molecular studies of natural populations are often designed to detect and categorize hidden layers of cryptic diversity, and an emerging pattern suggests that cryptic species are more common and more widely distributed than previously thought. However, these studies are often decoupled from ecological and behavioural studies of species divergence. Thus, the mechanisms by which the cryptic diversity is distributed and maintained across large spatial scales are often unknown. In 1988, it was discovered that the common Eurasian Wood White butterfly consisted of two species (Leptidea sinapis and Leptidea reali), and the pair became an emerging model for the study of speciation and chromosomal evolution. In 2011, the existence of a third cryptic species (Leptidea juvernica) was proposed. This unexpected discovery raises questions about the mechanisms preventing gene flow and about the potential existence of additional species hidden in the complex. Here, we compare patterns of genetic divergence across western Eurasia in an extensive data set of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA sequences with behavioural data on inter- and intraspecific reproductive isolation in courtship experiments. We show that three species exist in accordance with both the phylogenetic and biological species concepts and that additional hidden diversity is unlikely to occur in Europe. The Leptidea species are now the best studied cryptic complex of butterflies in Europe and a promising model system for understanding the formation of cryptic species and the roles of local processes, colonization patterns and heterospecific interactions for ecological and evolutionary divergence.