Aposematic species advertise their unpalatability using warning signals such as striking coloration. Given that predators need to sample aposematic prey to learn that they are unprofitable, prey with similar warning signals share the cost of predator learning. This reduction in predation risk drives evolutionary convergence of warning signals among chemically defended prey (Müllerian mimicry). Whether such warning signal convergence is associated to similar defence levels among co-mimics is still an open question that has rarely been tested in wild populations. We quantified variation in cyanide-based (CN) chemical protection in wild caught individuals of eight aposematic Heliconius butterfly species belonging to four sympatric mimicry rings. We then tested for correlations between chemical protection and ecological species-specific traits.
We report significant differences in CN concentrations both within and between sympatric species, even when accounting for the phylogeny, and within and between mimicry rings, even after considering inter-specific variation. We found significant correlations between CN concentration and both hostplant specialization and gregarious behaviour in adults and larvae. However, differences in CN concentrations were not significantly linked to mimicry ring abundance, although the two most toxic species did belong to the rarest mimicry ring.
Our results suggest that mimicry can explain the variation in the levels of chemical defence to a certain extent, although other ecological factors are also relevant to the evolution of such variability.