Background: Developmental plasticity is thought to have profound macro-evolutionary effects, for example, by increasing the probability of establishment in new environments and subsequent divergence into independently evolving lineages. In contrast to plasticity optimized for individual traits, phenotypic integration, which enables a concerted response of plastic traits to environmental variability, may affect the rate of local adaptation by constraining independent responses of traits to selection. Using a comparative framework, this study explores the evolution of reaction norms for a variety of life history and morphological traits across five related species of mycalesine butterflies from the Old World tropics.
Results: Our data indicate that an integrated response of a suite of key traits is shared amongst these species. Interestingly, the traits that make up the functional suite are all known to be regulated by ecdysteroid signalling in Bicyclus anynana, one of the species included in this study, suggesting the same underlying hormonal regulator may be conserved within this group of polyphenic butterflies. We also detect developmental thresholds for the expression of alternative morphs.
Conclusions: The phenotypic plasticity of a broad suite of morphological and life history traits is integrated and shared among species from three geographically independent lineages of mycalesine butterflies, despite considerable periods of independent evolution and exposure to disparate environments. At the same time, we have detected examples of evolutionary change where independent traits show different patterns of reaction norms. We argue that the expression of more robust phenotypes may occur by shifting developmental thresholds beyond the boundaries of the typical environmental variation.