Warning color changes in response to food deprivation in the pipevine swallowtail butterfly, Battus philenor

Kimberly V. Pegram, Alexandra C. Nahm, Ronald L. Rutowski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Predation on distasteful animals should favor warning coloration that is relatively conspicuous and phenotypically invariable. However, even among similarly colored individuals there can be variation in their warning signals. In butterflies, individual differences in larval feeding history could cause this variation. The warning signal of the pipevine swallowtail butterfly, Battus philenor L. (Lepidoptera: Papilionidae) consists of both a blue iridescent patch and pigmentbased orange spots on the ventral hindwing. B. philenor males also display a dorsal surface iridescent patch that functions as a sexual indicator signal. A previous study of iridescence in B. philenor found that the iridescent blue on both the dorsal and ventral hind wings is variable and significantly different between lab-reared and field-caught individuals. These differences could be the result of larval food deprivation in the field. Through experimental manipulation of larval diet, larval food deprivation was evaluated as a potential cause of the differences observed between lab and field individuals, and if food deprivation is a source of inter-individual variation in warning signals. B. philenor larvae were food restricted starting at two points in the last larval instar, and one group was fed through pupation. Adult coloration was then compared. Food deprivation led to poorer adult condition, as indicated by lower adult body mass, forewing length, and fat content of stressed individuals. As the level of food deprivation increased, the hue of the iridescent patches on both the dorsal and ventral hind wing shifted to shorter wavelengths, and the chroma of the orange spots decreased. The shifts in iridescent color did not match the differences previously found between lab and field individuals. However, the treatment differences indicate that food deprivation may be a significant source of warning color variation. The differences between the treatment groups are likely detectable by predators, but the effect of the variation on signal effectiveness and function remains to be empirically explored.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number110
JournalJournal of Insect Science
StatePublished - 2013


  • aposematic
  • coloration
  • food restriction
  • iridescence
  • pigment-based coloration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Insect Science


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