Sexual Dimorphism and Retinal Mosaic Diversification following the Evolution of a Violet Receptor in Butterflies

Kyle J. McCulloch, Furong Yuan, Ying Zhen, Matthew L. Aardema, Gilbert Smith, Jorge Llorente-Bousquets, Peter Andolfatto, Adriana D. Briscoe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Numerous animal lineages have expanded and diversified the opsin-based photoreceptors in their eyes underlying color vision behavior. However, the selective pressures giving rise to new photoreceptors and their spectral tuning remain mostly obscure. Previously, we identified a violet receptor (UV2) that is the result of a UV opsin gene duplication specific to Heliconius butterflies. At the same time the violet receptor evolved, Heliconius evolved UV-yellow coloration on their wings, due to the pigment 3-hydroxykynurenine (3-OHK) and the nanostructure architecture of the scale cells. In order to better understand the selective pressures giving rise to the violet receptor, we characterized opsin expression patterns using immunostaining (14 species) and RNA-Seq (18 species), and reconstructed evolutionary histories of visual traits in five major lineages within Heliconius and one species from the genus Eueides. Opsin expression patterns are hyperdiverse within Heliconius. We identified six unique retinal mosaics and three distinct forms of sexual dimorphism based on ommatidial types within the genus Heliconius. Additionally, phylogenetic analysis revealed independent losses of opsin expression, pseudogenization events, and relaxation of selection on UVRh2 in one lineage. Despite this diversity, the newly evolved violet receptor is retained across most species and sexes surveyed. Discriminability modeling of behaviorally preferred 3-OHK yellow wing coloration suggests that the violet receptor may facilitate Heliconius color vision in the context of conspecific recognition. Our observations give insights into the selective pressures underlying the origins of new visual receptors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2271-2284
Number of pages14
JournalMolecular biology and evolution
Issue number9
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2017


  • Butterflies
  • Color vision
  • Gene duplication
  • Photoreceptor cells
  • Pseudogenes
  • Short-wavelength opsin


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