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The viceroy butterfly is a mimic, modeling its orange-and-black colors after the queen butterfly, a bug that tastes so disgusting predators have learned not to eat it or anything that looks like it, including viceroys. The apparent dependence of mimics on their models made biologists wonder if the fates of the two species are forever intertwined. If so, then what happens when the mimic and the model part ways?
A study on these two butterflies in Florida, led by Katy Prudic, an assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Arizona, has found an interesting answer. Viceroy butterflies living in northern Florida, far away from the southern-dwelling queen butterflies, are not only more abundant than their southern kin, but they have also developed their own foul flavor.
Mimicry - Theory - Viceroy - Butterfly - Florida
"In classical mimicry theory, we wouldn't predict that the viceroy butterfly would be able to stay or be in northern Florida. It should be limited to southern Florida, where the queens live," Prudic said.
The classical theory, called Batesian mimicry, posits that one animal, known as the mimic, looks like another animal – the model that predators recognize as "unpalatable." An unpleasant experience trying to munch on the model species convinces predators to avoid both species, since they cannot reliably tell the difference between the two.
Butterflies - Mimicry - Populations - Viceroys - Regions
If the butterflies followed Batesian mimicry, populations of viceroys living in regions where predators had never met the unpalatable queens would not recognize the orange color of the butterfly as something awful; it would look like a delicious, easy-to-find snack, and predators would pick off the viceroy.
Yet Prudic's study found that the viceroy thrives where the queen is not found, because it has evolved the ability to taste bad.
"Have you ever chewed aspirin?" Prudic said. "It will not kill you, but you may want to...
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