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Variation of Clasper Scent Gland Composition of Heliconius Butterflies from a Biodiversity Hotspot

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Male Heliconius butterflies, which occur locally in three mimicry groups, show an extremely high diversity of compounds in their clasper scent glands. The more than 1,000 different compounds identified in 17 species are used for species-specific mixtures of volatile and non-volatile compounds, presumably used for chemical communication. (Photos: C. Jiggins)


Male Heliconius butterflies possess two pheromone emitting structures, wing androconia and abdominal clasper scent glands. The composition of the clasper scent gland of males of 17 Heliconius and Eueides species from an overlapping area in Ecuador, comprising three mimicry groups, was investigated by GC/MS. The chemical signal serves as an anti-aphrodisiac signal that is transferred from males to females during mating, indicating the mating status of the female to prevent them from harassment by other males. In addition, the odour may also serve in predator defence. There is potential for convergence driven by mimicry, although, such convergence might be detrimental for species recognition of the butterflies within the mimicry ring, making mating more difficult. More than 500 compounds were detected, consisting of volatile, semi-volatile or non-volatile compounds, including terpenes, fatty acid esters or aromatic compounds. Several novel esters were identified by GC/MS and GC/IR data, microderivatisation and synthesis, including butyl (Z)-3-dodecenoate and other (Z)-3-alkenoates, 3-oxohexyl citronellate and 5-methylhexa-3,5-dienyl (E)-2,3-dihydrofarnesoate. The secretions were found to be species specific, potentially allowing for species differentiation. Statistical analysis of the compounds showed differentiation by phylogenetic clade and species, but not by mimicry group.

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