The Evolutionary Trap That Wiped Out Thousands Of Butterflies

Adult Edith’s Checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha), Packer Lake, California.
Judy Gallagher / CC-BY 2.0)

Edith’s checkerspots readily evolve dependence upon alternative host plants

“I’ve spent 50 years studying the interconnectedness of Edith’s checkerspot with its host plants,” said the study’s co-author, behavioral ecologist Michael Singer, a professor at the University of Plymouth, in email. Decades of research has shown that different populations of Edith’s checkerspot butterflies have evolved preferences for different host plants throughout their range.

Edith’s checkerspot butterflies’ host plant preferences throughout California. The map shows the butterfly’s spatial distribution pattern throughout the state, and the pie diagrams represent the proportions of eggs laid on each host genus at each site.
(Credit: Michael Singer.)
Maiden blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia parviflora), the traditional host plant for the Schneider’s Meadow population of Edith’s checkerspot butterfly. Trail 228, Sugarloaf Mountain in Anacortes Community Forest Lands.
Walter Siegmund / CC-BY-SA 3.0)
Edith’s checkerspot (Euphydryas editha), perched on invasive English plantain (Plantago lanceolata).
(Credit: Michael Singer)

People change habitats faster than evolution can react

For at least the next four years, Edith’s checkerspot butterflies were completely absent from Schneider’s Meadow. However, when Professors Singer and Parmesan returned in 2014 to confirm the extinction of this population of butterflies, they were astonished to discover …. Edith’s checkerspot caterpillars! And these caterpillars were feeding on their original host plant, Collinsia!

A pair of Edith’s checkerspot butterflies (Euphydryas editha)
(Credit: Michael Singer)


Michael C. Singer and Camille Parmesan (2018). Lethal trap created by adaptive evolutionary response to an exotic resource, Nature, published online on 9 May 2018 ahead of print | doi:doi:10.1038/s41586–018–0074–6



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