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Not to be confused with Heliconia.
"Crenis" redirects here. For another genus of brush-footed butterfly with the same (invalid) name, see Sevenia.
Heliconius mimicry.png
Forms of Heliconius numata, H. melpomene and H. erato
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Lepidoptera
Division: Rhopalocera
Family: Nymphalidae
Subfamily: Heliconiinae
Genus: Heliconius
Kluk, 1780
Type species
Heliconius charithonia
Linnaeus, 1767

About 39, see species list in text.


Ajantis Hübner, 1816
Apostraphia Hübner, 1816
Blanchardia Buchecker, 1880 non Castelnau, 1875: preoccupied)
Crenis Hübner, 1821
Heliconia Godart 1819
Migonitis Hübner, 1816 (non Rafinesque, 1815: preoccupied)
Phlogris Hübner, 1825
Podalirius Gistel, 1848
Sunias Hübner, 1816
Sicyonia Hübner, 1816

Heliconius comprises a colorful and widespread genus of brush-footed butterfly commonly known as the longwings or heliconians. This genus is distributed throughout the tropical and subtropical regions of the New World, from South America as far north as the southern United States. The larvae of these butterflies eat Passion flower vines (Passifloraceae). Adults exhibit bright wing color patterns to signal their distastefulness to potential predators.

Brought to the forefront of scientific attention by Victorian naturalists, these butterflies exhibit a striking diversity and mimicry, both amongst themselves and with species in other groups of butterflies and moths. The study of Heliconius and other groups of mimetic butterflies allowed the English naturalist Henry Walter Bates, following his return from Brazil in 1859, to lend support to Charles Darwin, who had found similar diversity amongst the Galapagos Finches.

Model for evolutionary study[edit]

Heliconius butterflies have been a subject of many studies, due partly to their abundance and the relative ease of breeding them under laboratory conditions, but also because of the extensive mimicry that occurs in this group. From the nineteenth century to the present-day, their study has helped scientists to understand how new species are formed and why nature is so diverse. In particular, the genus is suitable for the study of both Batesian mimicry and Müllerian mimicry.

Because of the type of plant material that Heliconius caterpillars favor and the resulting poisons they store in their tissues, the adult butterflies are usually unpalatable to predators.[1] This warning is announced, to the mutual benefit of both parties, by bright colors and contrasting wing patterns, a phenomenon known as aposematism. Heliconius butterflies are thus Müllerian mimics of one another, and are also involved in Müllerian mimicry with various species of Ithomiini, Danaini, Riodinidae (Ithomeis and Stalachtis) and Acraeini as well as pericopine arctiid moths. They are probably the models for various palatable Batesian mimics, including Papilio zagreus and various Phyciodina.


Heliconius butterflies such as Heliconius numata benefit from mimicking other unpalatable species of butterfly in their local habitat, such as Melinaea, because doing so spreads the cost of educating predators.[1] Such mimicry is termed Müllerian and may result in convergent evolution. Work has been done to try to understand the genetic changes responsible for the convergent evolution of wing patterns in comimetic species. Molecular work on two distantly related Heliconius comimics, Heliconius melpomene and Heliconius erato, has revealed that homologous genomic regions in the species are responsible for the convergence in wing patterns.[2][3][4] Similarly, molecular evidence indicates that Heliconius numata shares the same patterning homologues, but that these loci are locked into a wing patterning supergene that results in a lack of recombination and a finite set of wing pattern morphs. [5]


Heliconius butterflies are models for the study of speciation. Hybrid speciation has been hypothesized to occur in this genus and may contribute to the diverse mimicry found in Heliconius butterflies.[6] It has been proposed that two closely related species, H. cydno and H. melpomene, hybridized to create the species H. heurippa. Assortive mating reproductively isolates H. heurippa from its parental species.[7] This is considered by some to represent a rare example of speciation through hybridization outside the plant world.

Pupal mating[edit]

Heliconius has converged evolutionarily in regards to pupal mating. One such species to exhibit this behavior is Heliconius charithonia.[8]

Checklist and geographic distribution of species[edit]

Species diversity[edit]

Most current researchers agree that there are some 39 Heliconius species. These are listed alphabetically here, according to Gerardo Lamas' (2004) checklist.[10] Note that the subspecific nomenclature is incomplete for many species (there are over 2000 published names associated with the genus, many of which are subjective synonyms or infrasubspecific names).[11][12][13]

Sometimes placed in Heliconius:

Doris Longwing (Laparus doris)


  1. ^ a b Wade, Nicholas (15 August 2011). "A Supergene Paints Wings for Surviving Biological War". NY Times. Retrieved 17 August 2011. 
  2. ^ Baxter, S W, Papa, R, Chamberlain, N, Humphray, J S, Joron, M, Morrison, C and Ffrench-Constant, R H, 2008. Convergent evolution in the genetic basis of müllerian mimicry in heliconius butterflies. Genetics 180: 1567–77
  3. ^ Counterman, B A, Araujo-Perez, F, Hines, H M, Baxter, S W, Morrison, C M, Lindstrom, D P and Papa, R, 2010. Genomic hotspots for adaptation: The population genetics of Müllerian mimicry in heliconius erato. Plos Genetics 6:-.
  4. ^ Joron, M, Papa, R, Beltran, M, Chamberlain, N, Mavarez, J, Baxter, S and Abanto, M, 2006. A conserved supergene locus controls color pattern diversity in heliconius butterflies. Plos Biology 4: 1831–40
  5. ^ Joron, M, Frezal, L, Jones, R T, Chamberlain, N L, "et al." 2011. Chromosomal rearrangements maintain a polymorphic supergene controlling butterfly mimicry. "Nature" 477: 203–08
  6. ^ Brower A V Z (2011). "Hybrid speciation in Heliconius butterflies? A review and critique of the evidence". Genetica 139 (2): 589–609. doi:10.1007/s10709-010-9530-4. 
  7. ^ Mavarez, J, Salazar, C A, Bermingham, E, Salcedo, C, Jiggins, C D and Linares, M, 2006. Speciation by hybridization in heliconius butterflies. Nature 441:868–71.
  8. ^ Sourakov, Andrei. (2008). Pupal Mating in Zebra Longwing (Heliconius Charithonia): Photographic Evidence. News of the Lepidopterists' Society 50(1):26-32.
  9. ^ Rosser N, Phillimore AB, Huertas B, Willmott KR, & Mallet J. 2012. Testing historical explanations for gradients in species richness in heliconiine butterflies of tropical America. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 105: 479-497. DOI: 10.1111/j.1095-8312.2011.01814.x
  10. ^ Lamas, G (Ed), 2004. Atlas of Neotropical Lepidoptera. Checklist: Part 4A Hesperioidea – Papiionoidea. Gainesville, Scientific Publishers/Association of Tropical Lepidoptera.
  11. ^ Heliconiini, Nymphalidae Study Group website
  12. ^ Heliconius, funet.fi
  13. ^ Heliconius, Neotropical Butterflies

Further reading[edit]

  • Holzinger, H and Holzinger, R, 1994. Heliconius and related genera. Sciences Nat, Venette, pp. 1–328, pl. 1–51 [1]
  • Kapan, D D, 2001. Three-butterfly system provides a field test of Müllerian mimicry. Nature, 409, 338–40.
  • Kronforst, M R, Young, L G, Blume, L M and Gilbert, L E, 2006. Multilocus analyses of admixture and introgression among hybridizing Heliconius butterflies. Evolution, 60, 1254–68.
  • Mallet, J, Beltrán, M, Neukirchen, W, and Linares, M, 2007. Natural hybridization in heliconiine butterflies: The species boundary as a continuum. BMC Evol Biol, 7, 28. abstract

External links[edit]