Rapid diversification and not clade age explains high diversity in neotropical Adelpha butterflies

Sean P. Mullen, Wesley K. Savage, Niklas Wahlberg, Keith R. Willmott


Latitudinal gradients in species richness are among the most well-known biogeographic patterns in nature, and yet there remains much debate and little consensus over the ecological and evolutionary causes of these gradients. Here, we evaluated whether two prominent alternative hypotheses (namely differences in diversification rate or clade age) could account for the latitudinal diversity gradient in one of the most speciose neotropical butterfly genera (Adelpha) and its close relatives. We generated a multilocus phylogeny of a diverse group of butterflies in the containing tribe Limenitidini, which has both temperate and tropical representatives. Our results suggest there is no relationship between clade age and species richness that could account for the diversity gradient, but that instead it could be explained by a significantly higher diversification rate within the predominantly tropical genus Adelpha. An apparent early larval host-plant shift to Rubiaceae and other plant families suggests that the availability of new potential host plants probably contributed to an increase in diversification of Adelpha in the lowland Neotropics. Collectively, our results support the hypothesis that the equatorial peak in species richness observed within Adelpha is the result of increased diversification rate in the last 10–15 Myr rather than a function of clade age, perhaps reflecting adaptive divergence in response to the dramatic host-plant diversity found within neotropical ecosystems.

  • Received October 5, 2010.
  • Accepted November 5, 2010.
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