It is no coincidence that both Mullerian and Batesian mimicry were first described in butterflies. Both kinds of mimicry are widespread among tropical butterflies with large numbers of both Mullerian and Batesian mimics sharing a colour pattern; such groups of species with similar colouration are called ‘mimicry rings.’

Due to the abundance of of mimicry in butterflies, various butterfly species have been chosen as model systems by evolutionary biologists looking to understand the evolution of mimicry, and what it can tell us about evolutionary processes in general.

One of the models for Mullerian mimicry is a group of related species of butterflies from the tropical rainforests of Central and South America. These Heliconius butterflies have been extensively studied for over 100 years by scientists from around the globe. So well-studied are they that one species, Heliconius melpomene was the second butterfly to have its complete genome sequenced.

For modelling Batesian mimicry, the two most developed systems are both swallowtail butterflies from the genus Papilio:

  • P. memnon from South East Asia.
  • P. dardanus from Africa and Madagascar.

Both of these species have a complex mimicry system, with various different colour forms (morphs) each belonging to a different mimicry ring. Unlike the Heliconius species these species also show sexual dimorphism, with males and females having different wing patterns. As detailed on the ‘Genetics’ page, many of these Batesian mimics are highly polymorphic, where different wing patterns are controlled by different alleles (variants) of one ’switch’ gene, believed to be a ‘supergene’ or tightly-linked complex of co-adapted genes.