Butterflies of the
Amazon and Andes
Family - NYMPHALIDAE
Tribe - HELICONIINI
Heliconius xanthocles simulatus sequestering pollen from
'hotlips' Psychotria peruviana in
rainforest at Rio Madre de Dios, Peru
© Adrian Hoskins
The tribe Heliconiini, colloquially known as Longwings, includes 71
species, all confined exclusively to the neotropics.
Heliconiini includes the genera Heliconius,
All Heliconius species have elongated
black wings, marked with simple but striking patterns usually
featuring streaks or patches of red and cream, or blue and cream.
They are characterised by their delicate fluttering flight, long
straight antennae, and fondness for flowers.
The 39 Heliconius species are much
studied by geneticists and taxonomists. Many of them produce a
staggering variety of colour forms, e.g.
Heliconius erato produces 29 different subspecies, each of
which corresponds almost exactly in colour and pattern to a 'sister'
subspecies of melpomene flying in the
produces numerous subspecies, but instead of mimicking other
Heliconius species, they each mimic a particular species of 'tiger
forms 16 subspecies found variously in Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana,
Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. The basic pattern and colour
scheme is similar for each subspecies, but they differ in the size
and shape of the cream markings on the forewings, and in the extent
of the orange/red patterning.
simulatus inhabits the Amazonian lowlands of s.w. Brazil and
occurs in lowland rainforest at elevations between sea level and
To be completed.
butterflies are characterised by having a very delicate fluttering
flight, particularly when hovering around flowers. They commonly
nectar at Hamelia,
Lantana and Palicourea.
Unlike other butterflies,
Heliconius females feed on pollen as well
Studies of ethilla have shown that
females deprived of pollen can only produce about 15% of the number of
eggs laid by females that have access to it. This probably applies
equally to other Heliconius species
including xanthocles. The pollen from
Psychotria, Anguria and
Gurania flowers provides amino acids
which can't be obtained from nectar or other sources, and contributes
greatly to the longevity of the butterflies - some
Heliconius species are known to live for
up to 9 months as adults.
Studies have shown that
Heliconius butterflies have home ranges
within which they can memorise the locations of nectar and pollen
sources, host plants and communal roosting sites. They are able to
plan the most efficient route by which to visit all nectar / pollen
sources in the vicinity by using simple calculations akin to what
mathematicians call the "travelling salesman algorithm". Erlich &
Gilbert demonstrated that individual butterflies memorise the location
of particular Psiguria plants, which they
visit daily, following a predefined circuit through the forest.
In the genus Heliconius most species rely
entirely on airborne chemicals to locate mates. Males of
ismenius and cydno are attracted
by pheromones to the pupae of conspecific females. The day before
emergence a female pupa will usually have several males in close
attendance. A frantic battle takes place the instant she hatches, as
the males all struggle to copulate with her, not even allowing her
time to expand and dry her wings. In some other
Heliconius species such as
sara the males don't even wait until the female emerges.
Instead they physically break open her pupa and copulate as soon as
her genitalia are accessible.