A non-evolutionary explanation has been found for a classic evolutionary showpiece: mimicry in butterflies.

Heliconius butterflies are well-known for having nearly identical wing patterns between species.  Prior evolutionary explanations involved developing these patterns independently through mutation and natural selection.  Now, a new paper in Nature shows that the butterflies share the genes for the patterns through hybridization.1

PhysOrg summarized the surprising findings:

The genetic sharing between species, researchers believe, is the result of hybridization. Considered extremely rare, particularly in animals, hybridization occurs when insects of two different species interbreed in the wild.

The resulting hybrid offspring share traits with both mother and father.  Though often considered evolutionary dead-end, hybrids occasionally interbreed with a parent species, in the process introducing new genes that can help populations adapt to new or changing environments.

And what does this mean for Darwinian evolution?

“What we show is that one butterfly species can gain its protective colour pattern genes ready-made from a different species by hybridizing (or interbreeding) with it – a much faster process than having to evolve one’s colour patterns from scratch,” said Kanchon Dasmahapatra, a postdoctoral researcher at the University College of London’s Department of Genetics, Evolution, and Environment, and a co-author of the paper….

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