Melanie Brien

The genetic control of iridescence and structural colour in Heliconius butterflies

Co-supervisors: Professor Roger Butlin (University of Sheffield), Dr Kanchon Dasmahapatra (University of York)

Funded by a NERC ACCE Studentship



My research focuses on the genetics of structural colour in two species of Heliconius butterflies – H. erato and H. melpomene. These are found across Central and South America, but only the races found in Colombia and Western Ecuador exhibit iridescent colour, while those found further north towards Panama use only pigmentary colour. Hybrid zones exist between these areas, where races with varying amounts of iridescence can be found.


The genetics of structural colour

In 2014 I travelled to Mashpi reserve in Ecuador to set up some experimental crosses between iridescent and non-iridescent races of Heliconius. During my PhD I aim to use the individuals from these crosses to measure the phenotypic variation in iridescence and identify the loci involved in controlling the trait.

Functions of structural colour

Structural colours are widely used in communication and signalling in many animals and plants. I am interested in looking at the function of iridescence in Heliconius and how it is used in mate choice. Do butterflies with this trait show assortative mating and is it used as an indicator of the individual’s quality?