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Scientists solve mystery over copycat butterflies

08-18-2011 14:49 BJT

CANBERRA, Aug. 17 (Xinhua) -- Australian scientist on Wednesday said his international research team has discovered the trick on how butterfly learn to change its wing pattern to avoid being eaten by birds.

The Amazonian butterfly, Heliconius numata, has learnt to carry out a single genetic switch to alter its wing pattern so it appears to be another bad-tasting butterfly that birds will avoid.

Dr. Siu Fai (Ronald) Lee from the Department of Genetics and Bio21 Institute at Australia's University of Melbourne was part of the international research team, which was led by scientists at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and the University of Exeter in United Kingdom.

Dr. Lee said the historical mystery had puzzled researchers for decades.

"Charles Darwin was puzzled by how butterflies evolved such similar patterns of warning coloration," Dr. Siu Fai (Ronald) Lee from the Department of Genetics and Bio21 Institute at the University of Melbourne told Western Australia Today.

"We have now solved this mystery, identifying the region of chromosome responsible for changing wing pattern."

He said the research team identified a genetic switch known as a supergene, which allowed the butterfly to morph into several different forms, allowing one species to mimic another.

"It is amazing that by changing just one small region of the chromosomes, the butterfly is able to fool its predators by mimicking a range of different butterflies that taste bad," he said.

"The butterflies rearrange this supergene DNA like a small pack of cards, and the result is new wing patterns. It means that butterflies look completely different but have the same DNA.

"There are other butterflies doing similar tricks, but this is the most elegant one.

"I was just fascinated by how elegant they were."

He said the discovery proves that small chromosomal changes can preserve successful gene combinations, and thus help a species to adapt.

The findings of the study are published on August 14 in the international journal Nature.

Editor:Wang Xiaomei |Source: Xinhua

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