The color red has many meanings, such as love, energy, and power. But in nature it has another meaning. For butterflies the color red means poison. Several research teams have discovered that over time certain butterflies have changed their genes to mimic those of poisonous butterflies.
The Heliconius butterflies mimic the genes of the Melinaea butterflies. The Melinaea butterflies are very gross tasting and poisonous to their predators. Since the Heliconius butterflies are perfectly safe and delicious for their predators they are very easy targets and get eaten very often. So to protect themselves, over time the Heliconius butterflies have developed similar looks to the Melinaea butterflies. So even though they are still not toxic and good tasting, they look almost exactly like the Melinaea butterflies making it very hard for predators to tell them apart. So because they are almost impossible to tell apart, predators are not eating the Heliconius butterflies because they think they are the poisonous Melinaea butterflies.
Scientists have been researching this Heliconius butterfly characteristic for many years. They’ve discovered that their changing gene doesn’t only change their color but also their wing patterns. So much so that even the scientists can barely tell the two apart. They have also discovered that the gene the butterflies use to change their wing color and pattern is the same gene that is found in humans that determines their eye color.
Scientists continue to learn more and more about this butterfly mimicking gene. Researching this topic made me wonder, are there any other creatures who have this same mimicking gene? Since it’s the same gene used to determine eye color, is there any way humans can permanently change the color of their eyes? And how long has it taken the Heliconius butterflies to completely mimick the wing color and pattern of the Melinaea butterflies?