Ecological Research

, Volume 29, Issue 4, pp 685–691 | Cite as

Are tropical butterflies more colorful?

  • Jonathan M. Adams
  • Changku Kang
  • Mark June-Wells
Original Article


There is a common and long-standing belief that tropical butterflies are more striking in their coloration than those of cooler climates. It has been suggested that this is due to more intense biotic selection or mate selection in the tropics. We tested whether there were differences in coloration by examining the dorsal surface color properties of male butterflies from three regions of the western hemisphere: the Jatun-Satcha Reserve in lowland Ecuador (tropical), the state of Florida, USA (subtropical) and the state of Maine, USA (cool temperate). We digitally photographed the dorsal wing and body surface of male butterfly specimens from Maine, Florida, and Ecuador. For each photograph, we analyzed the mean and variation for the color-parameters that are thought to be related to colorfulness; namely Hue, saturation and intensity. Overall, the Ecuadorian sample exhibited more varied intensity, saturation, and Hue compared to the other regions. These results suggest a more complex assemblage of colors and patterns regionally and on a butterfly-by-butterfly basis in the tropics. The greater complexity of colors within each butterfly in our Ecuadorian sample suggests that tropical butterflies are indeed more ‘colorful’, at least by some measures. Possible reasons for this include stronger predation pressure selecting for aposematism, greater species diversity selecting for camouflage or warning coloration against potential predators, and easier recognition of potential mates in a species rich environment.


Butterflies Coloration Tropical Temperate Latitude Aposematism 



We thank the staff of the Lepidoptera collections of American Museum of Natural History, New York, and the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, for their assistance in making it possible for us to photograph the specimens in their collections. In particular we wish to thank Dr. Jason Weintraub of the Academy of Natural Sciences for his very thorough advice. We thank Dr. Gareth Russell of Rutgers University with assistance in writing the MATLAB program used for color analysis.

Supplementary material

11284_2014_1154_MOESM1_ESM.docx (31 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 31 kb)
11284_2014_1154_MOESM2_ESM.tif (2.4 mb)
Supplementary material 2 (TIFF 2457 kb) Example of photographed, processed museum specimen used in this study. Diaethriaanna. The raw image was color-corrected and the background removed. Antennae were excluded from the final version of the image, as many museum specimens had lost their antennae


  1. Aronsson M, Gamberale-Stille G (2009) Importance of internal pattern contrast and contrast against the background in aposematic signals. Behav Ecol 20:1356–1362CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Aronsson M, Gamberale-Stille G (2012) Evidence of signaling benefits to contrasting internal color boundaries in warning coloration. Behav Ecol 24:349–354CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Benson WW (1972) Natural selection for Müllerian mimicry in Heliconiuserato in Costa Rica. Science 176:936–938PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Blount JD, Rowland HM, Drijfhout FP, Endler JA, Inger R, Sloggett JJ, Hurst GDD, Hodgson DJ, Speed MP (2012) How the ladybird got its spots: effects of resource limitation on the honesty of aposematic signals. Funct Ecol 26:334–342CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Brower LP, Horner BE, Marty MA, Moffitt CM, Villa RB (1985) Mice (Peromyscus maniculatus, P. spicilegus, and Microtus mexicanus) as predators of overwintering monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in Mexico. Biotropica 17:89–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Fisher RA (1930) The general theory of natural selection. Clarendon Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  7. Gamberale G, Tullberg B (1996) Evidence for a peak-shift in predator generalization among aposematic prey. Proc R Soc Lond B 263:1329–1334CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Hill GE, McGraw KJ (2006) Bird Coloration. Vol 1. Mechanisms and Measurements. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  9. Lambertini M (2000) A Naturalist’s guide to the tropics. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  10. Lyytinen A, Alatalo RV, Lindström L, Mappes J (2001) Can ultraviolet cues function as aposematic signals? Behav Ecol 12:65–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. MacArthur R (1969) Patterns of communities in the tropics. Biol J Linn Soc 1:19–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Marchetti K (1993) Dark habitats and bright birds illustrate the role of the environment in species divergence. Nature 362:149–152CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Muller MJ (1982) Selected climatic data for a global set of standard stations for vegetation science. Tasks for Vegetation Science Vol. 5, Dr W. Junk Publ., BerlinGoogle Scholar
  14. Murray D (1996) A survey of the butterfly fauna of Jatun Sacha, Ecuador (Lepidoptera: Hesperioidea and Papilionoidea). J Res Lep 35:42–60Google Scholar
  15. Olofsson M, Vallin A, Jakobsson S, Wiklund C (2010) Marginal Eyespots on butterfly wings deflect bird attacks under low light intensities with UV wavelengths. PLoS ONE: e10798. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010798
  16. Opler PA, Warren AD (2003) Butterflies of North America. 2. Scientific Names List for Butterfly Species of North America, north of Mexico.
  17. Opler PA, Stanford RE, Pavulaan H (2004) Butterflies of North America. USGS.
  18. Pelham J (2008) Catalogue of the Butterflies of the United States and Canada. J Res Lep 40:xiv and 658Google Scholar
  19. Pinheiro C (1996) Palatablility and escaping ability in Neotropical butterflies: tests with wild kingbirds (Tyrannus melancholicus, Tyrannidae). Biol J Linn Soc 59:351–365CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Poulton EB(1890) The Colours of Animals: Their Meaning and Use, Especially Considered in the Case of Insects. Kegan Paul, LondonGoogle Scholar
  21. Ruxton GD (2005) Intimidating butterflies. Trends Ecol Evol 20:276–278PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Ruxton GD, Sherratt TN, Speed MP (2004) Avoiding attack: the evolutionary ecology of crypsis, warning signals and mimicry. Oxford University Press, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Saporito RA, Zuercher R, Roberts M, Gerow KG, Donnelly MA (2007) Experimental evidence for aposematism in the dendrobatid poison frog Oophaga pumilio. Copeia 4:1006–1011CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Stevens M, Hopkins E, Hinde W, Adcock A, Connolly Y, Troscianko T, Cuthill IC (2007) Field experiments on the effectiveness of ‘eyespots’ as predator deterrents. Anim Behav 74:1215–1227CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Théry M, Gomez D (2010) Insect colours and visual appearance in the eyes of their predators. Adv Insect Physiol 38:267–353CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Turner M (1979) Diet and feeding phenology of the green lynx spider, Peucetia viridans (Araneae: Oxyopidae). J Arachnol 7:149–154Google Scholar
  27. USGS (2013) Butterflies Checklist for North America.
  28. Wallace AR (1878) The colors of animals and plants. Am Nat 11:641–662CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Wallace AR (1879) Color in nature. Nature 19:580–581Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Ecological Society of Japan 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jonathan M. Adams
    • 1
  • Changku Kang
    • 1
  • Mark June-Wells
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesSeoul National UniversitySeoulSouth Korea
  2. 2.Division of Restoration Ecology and Lake ManagementNew England Environmental IncorporatedMiddlefieldUSA

Personalised recommendations