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The Heliconiini or passion-vine butterflies, have played a key role in understanding evolutionary biology (e. g. mimicry) and ecology (e. g. mutualism between insects and plants), and it would be difficult to point a group of neotropical butterflies that have contributed more to our knowledge of the biological processes in the tropics (See Brown 1981 for review). These derived members of the subtribe Heliconiina have undergone rapid speciation and divergence, while also exhibiting impressive mimetic convergence in wing patterns.

A sample of the morphological diversity of wing patterns in Heliconius and related genera. Each row represents a phylogenetic clade in the tribe Heliconiini. © Chris Jiggins and Mathieu Joron

The figure highlights the rampant pattern diversification within clades and species, and mimicry between clades. Reconstruction of ancestral wing patterns is difficult for such rapidly evolving traits. It may be the case that the orange-rayed pattern is ancestral, in which case the other mimetic patterns are convergent derived patterns. However, it has also been suggested that ancestral Heliconius were more similar to the so-called ‘postman’ pattern of H. melpomene amaryllis, in which case the rayed pattern has evolved repeatedly (Joron et al. 2006).

Etymology: Linnaeus created Heliconius as a subsection of Papilio, to contain delicate butterflies not suited, as were Danaidas and Swallowtails, to being named after the combatants from the Iliad (Turner 1967, 1976). They were mainly named after muses (melpomene, erato, egeria), graces (charithonia) and female deities (doris). In continuation with the tradition, later authors have continued the association with poetry, arts and deities using names like Neruda (a Chilean Poet) and pavana (a Hindu god) (see each species for more information).


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