Chemical defences against predators underlie the evolution of aposematic coloration and mimicry, which are classic examples of adaptive evolution. Surprisingly little is known about the roles of ecological and evolutionary processes maintaining defence variation, and how they may feedback to shape the evolutionary dynamics of species. Cyanogenic Heliconius butterflies exhibit diverse warning color patterns and mimicry, thus providing a useful framework for investigating these questions. We studied intraspecific variation in de novo biosynthesized cyanogenic toxicity and its potential ecological and evolutionary sources in wild populations of Heliconius erato along environmental gradients, in common-garden broods and with feeding treatments. Our results demonstrate substantial intraspecific variation, including detectable variation among broods reared in a common garden. The latter estimate suggests considerable evolutionary potential in this trait, although predicting the response to selection is likely complicated due to the observed skewed distribution of toxicity values and the signatures of maternal contributions to the inheritance of toxicity. Larval diet contributed little to toxicity variation. Furthermore, toxicity profiles were similar along steep rainfall and altitudinal gradients, providing little evidence for these factors explaining variation in biosynthesized toxicity in natural populations. In contrast, there were striking differences in the chemical profiles of H. erato from geographically distant populations, implying potential local adaptation in the acquisition mechanisms and levels of defensive compounds. The results highlight the extensive variation and potential for adaptive evolution in defense traits for aposematic and mimetic species, which may contribute to the high diversity often found in these systems.
- 1181 Ekologia, evoluutiobiologia