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Concept: Peppered moth


Camouflage, and in particular background-matching, is one of the most common anti-predator strategies observed in nature. Animals can improve their match to the colour/pattern of their surroundings through background selection, and/or by plastic colour change. Colour change can occur rapidly (a few seconds), or it may be slow, taking hours to days. Many studies have explored the cues and mechanisms behind rapid colour change, but there is a considerable lack of information about slow colour change in the context of predation: the cues that initiate it, and the range of phenotypes that are produced. Here we show that peppered moth (Biston betularia) larvae respond to colour and luminance of the twigs they rest on, and exhibit a continuous reaction norm of phenotypes. When presented with a heterogeneous environment of mixed twig colours, individual larvae specialise crypsis towards one colour rather than developing an intermediate colour. Flexible colour change in this species has likely evolved in association with wind dispersal and polyphagy, which result in caterpillars settling and feeding in a diverse range of visual environments. This is the first example of visually induced slow colour change in Lepidoptera that has been objectively quantified and measured from the visual perspective of natural predators.

Concepts: Natural selection, Insect, Crypsis, Ecology, Lepidoptera, Peppered moth, Peppered moth evolution, Moth


From the outset multiple causes have been suggested for changes in melanic gene frequency in the peppered moth Biston betularia and other industrial melanic moths. These have included higher intrinsic fitness of melanic forms and selective predation for camouflage. The possible existence and origin of heterozygote advantage has been debated. From the 1950s, as a result of experimental evidence, selective predation became the favoured explanation and is undoubtedly the major factor driving the frequency change. However, modelling and monitoring of declining melanic frequencies since the 1970s indicate either that migration rates are much higher than existing direct estimates suggested or else, or in addition, non-visual selection has a role. Recent molecular work on genetics has revealed that the melanic (carbonaria) allele had a single origin in Britain, and that the locus is orthologous to a major wing patterning locus in Heliconius butterflies. New methods of analysis should supply further information on the melanic system and on migration that will complete our understanding of this important example of rapid evolution.Heredity advance online publication, 5 December 2012; doi:10.1038/hdy.2012.92.

Concepts: Gene, Genetics, Natural selection, Evolution, Peppered moth, Peppered moth evolution, Moth, Melanism


Discovering the mutational events that fuel adaptation to environmental change remains an important challenge for evolutionary biology. The classroom example of a visible evolutionary response is industrial melanism in the peppered moth (Biston betularia): the replacement, during the Industrial Revolution, of the common pale typica form by a previously unknown black (carbonaria) form, driven by the interaction between bird predation and coal pollution. The carbonaria locus has been coarsely localized to a 200-kilobase region, but the specific identity and nature of the sequence difference controlling the carbonaria-typica polymorphism, and the gene it influences, are unknown. Here we show that the mutation event giving rise to industrial melanism in Britain was the insertion of a large, tandemly repeated, transposable element into the first intron of the gene cortex. Statistical inference based on the distribution of recombined carbonaria haplotypes indicates that this transposition event occurred around 1819, consistent with the historical record. We have begun to dissect the mode of action of the carbonaria transposable element by showing that it increases the abundance of a cortex transcript, the protein product of which plays an important role in cell-cycle regulation, during early wing disc development. Our findings fill a substantial knowledge gap in the iconic example of microevolutionary change, adding a further layer of insight into the mechanism of adaptation in response to natural selection. The discovery that the mutation itself is a transposable element will stimulate further debate about the importance of ‘jumping genes’ as a source of major phenotypic novelty.

Concepts: Mutation, Natural selection, Evolution, RNA, Peppered moth, Peppered moth evolution, Moth, Melanism


The wing patterns of butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera) are diverse and striking examples of evolutionary diversification by natural selection. Lepidopteran wing colour patterns are a key innovation, consisting of arrays of coloured scales. We still lack a general understanding of how these patterns are controlled and whether this control shows any commonality across the 160,000 moth and 17,000 butterfly species. Here, we use fine-scale mapping with population genomics and gene expression analyses to identify a gene, cortex, that regulates pattern switches in multiple species across the mimetic radiation in Heliconius butterflies. cortex belongs to a fast-evolving subfamily of the otherwise highly conserved fizzy family of cell-cycle regulators, suggesting that it probably regulates pigmentation patterning by regulating scale cell development. In parallel with findings in the peppered moth (Biston betularia), our results suggest that this mechanism is common within Lepidoptera and that cortex has become a major target for natural selection acting on colour and pattern variation in this group of insects.

Concepts: Natural selection, Evolution, Insect, Order, Lepidoptera, Peppered moth, Moth, Butterfly


Mimicry and melanism in Lepidoptera provided the first convincing examples of natural selection in action. Genetic analysis has now shown that, surprisingly, mimicry in Heliconius butterflies and melanism in peppered moths are switched at precisely the same gene: cortex.

Concepts: Natural selection, Evolution, Biology, Lepidoptera, Peppered moth, Moth, Charles Darwin


We have constructed a linkage map for the peppered moth (Biston betularia), the classical ecological genetics model of industrial melanism, aimed both at localizing the network of loci controlling melanism and making inferences about chromosome dynamics. The linkage map, which is based primarily on amplified fragment length polymorphisms (AFLPs) and genes, consists of 31 linkage groups (LGs; consistent with the karyotype). Comparison with the evolutionarily distant Bombyx mori suggests that the gene content of chromosomes is highly conserved. Gene order is conserved on the autosomes, but noticeably less so on the Z chromosome, as confirmed by physical mapping using bacterial artificial chromosome fluorescence in situ hybridization (BAC-FISH). Synteny mapping identified three pairs of B. betularia LGs (11/29, 23/30 and 24/31) as being orthologous to three B. mori chromosomes (11, 23 and 24, respectively). A similar finding in an outgroup moth (Plutella xylostella) indicates that the B. mori karyotype (n=28) is a phylogenetically derived state resulting from three chromosome fusions. As with other Lepidoptera, the B. betularia W chromosome consists largely of repetitive sequence, but exceptionally we found a W homolog of a Z-linked gene (laminin A), possibly resulting from ectopic recombination between the sex chromosomes. The B. betularia linkage map, featuring the network of known melanization genes, serves as a resource for melanism research in Lepidoptera. Moreover, its close resemblance to the ancestral lepidopteran karyotype (n=31) makes it a useful reference point for reconstructing chromosome dynamic events and ancestral genome architectures. Our study highlights the unusual evolutionary stability of lepidopteran autosomes; in contrast, higher rates of intrachromosomal rearrangements support a special role of the Z chromosome in adaptive evolution and speciation.Heredity advance online publication, 5 December 2012; doi:10.1038/hdy.2012.84.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Molecular biology, Chromosome, Lepidoptera, Peppered moth, Peppered moth evolution, Moth