PapilioMemnonCompositeSwallowtail butterflies (genus Papilio) have undergone one of the most spectacular radiations in the animal world. With over 200 species and probably twice that many subspecies described, it makes a very diverse taxonomic group. Its members include such large, colorful and prominent species as the Ulysses Swallowtail (Papilio ulysses), Common Yellow Swallowtail (P. machaon), Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (P. glaucus), Mocker Swallowtail (Papilio dardanus), and Paris Peacock (P. paris).

Mormon swallowtails (Menelaides) make up the largest subgenus of Papilio, with approximately 50 species (25% of the genus) and 200 subspecies distributed over the Indo-Australian Region. The geographic mosaic of their distributional ranges is characterized by endemism and diversification in regional hotspots on one hand and subspeciation at sometimes micro-spatial scales on the other. This makes them a promising group in which to study speciation and subspeciation, and biogeographic processes such as dispersal, isolation and vicariance. Many of them also show a spectacular diversity of Batesian mimicry and wing patterns, and the subgenus includes such iconic mimetic species as Papilio memnon, P. polyes and P. aegeus. Mimicry in some species is female-limited and polymorphic, i.e., females in these species are mimetic and appear in several forms, whereas males are monomorphic and non-mimetic, representing ancestral color patterns of the species. This makes them ideal subjects for testing theories of natural, sexual and frequency-dependent selection. Finally, the evolution of mimicry is believed to have driven genomic re-arrangements and positive selection on wing-patterning genes, which offer opportunities to study the molecular genetic aspects of evolution. Together, these attributes make mormon swallowtails a model system to study biodiversity and selection at various scales.

Currently we are working towards building foundations on which to develop Papilio as a model clade to study morphological diversification, evolution of wing color patterns and mimicry, and speciation. With Felix Sperling and Adam Cotton we are preparing a species-level molecular phylogeny that will cover all the species in this genus, with analyses of biogeography, wing color pattern evolution and mimicry closely following. We are investigating the molecular genetic and chemical bases of female-limited mimicry in Papilo polytes. We are also currently doing and planning several behavioral experiments and field observational studies to test theories about Batesian mimicry, female-limited mimicry, predation, natural selection and sexual selection using several species of Menelaides. Details and updates will be provided on this page as major projects are completed.


Deshmukh, R., S. Baral, A. Gandhimathi, M. Kuwalekar, and K. Kunte. 2017. Mimicry in butterflies: co-option and a bag of magnificent developmental genetic tricks. WIREs Developmental Biology, published online early. PDF file (8.5MB, has colour figures).

Arnold, M. L. and K. Kunte. 2017. Adaptive genetic exchange: a tangled history of admixture and evolutionary innovation. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 32:601–611. PDF file (1.8MB, has colour figures). Recommended by Faculty of 1000 (F1000Prime) (download the recommendation if you do not have a subscription).

Su, S., M. Lim, and K. Kunte. 2015. Prey from the eyes of predators: colour discriminability of aposematic and mimetic butterflies from an avian visual perspective. Evolution, 69:29852994. PDF file (650KB; or PDF file with supporting information, 1.1MB). This work was featured on the cover of the journal issue, and in several popular science news stories in PhysOrg, EurekAlert, The Hindu, The Statesman, and NCBS News, among others.

Kunte, K., W. Zhang, A. Tenger-Trolander, D. H. Palmer, A. Martin, R. D. Reed, S. P. Mullen, and M. R. Kronforst. 2014. doublesex is a mimicry supergene. Nature, 507:229232PDF file (1.2MB). Recommended by Faculty of 1000 (F1000Prime) (download the recommendation if you do not have a subscription). Read more about the story on this webpage. See popular science coverage of this paper in Nature, Nature India, Science, NCBS News, The Scientist, National Geographic's Phenomena blog, Mongabay, New York Times, The Hindu, and ScienceDaily.

Kunte, K., C. Shea, M. L. Aardema, J. M. Scriber, T. E. Juenger, L. E. Gilbert, and M. R. Kronforst. 2011. Sex chromosome mosaicism and hybrid speciation among tiger swallowtail butterflies. PLoS Genetics, 7:e1002274. See the full paper online on the journal website, or its news coverage on the National Science Foundation (NSF, USA) website, the University of Texas at Austin and the College of Natural Sciences websites, in Harvard Gazette, or on MSNBC, and myscience. Read more about this work ...

Kunte, K. 2009. Female-limited mimetic polymorphism: A review of theories and a critique of sexual selection as balancing selection. Animal Behaviour, 78:1029–1036. PDF file (586 KB, includes a color figure). Read more about this work ...

Kunte, K. 2009. The diversity and evolution of Batesian mimicry in Papilio swallowtail butterflies. Evolution, 63:2707–2716. PDF file (987KB, includes a color figure).

Kunte, K. 2008. Mimetic butterflies support Wallace's model of sexual dimorphism. Proceedings of the Royal Society, B, 275:16171624 PDF file (404 KB). Recommended by Faculty of 1000 (F1000Prime) (download the recommendation if you do not have a subscription). Featured on Science website, and also in Roughgarden, J. 2009. The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness, Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 38-39.