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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2023

Mutualistic interactions shape global spatial congruence and climatic niche evolution in Neotropical mimetic butterflies

Dore, Mael; Willmott, Keith; Lavergne, Sebastien; Chazot, Nicolas; Freitas, Andre V. L.; Fontaine, Colin; Elias, Marianne


Understanding the mechanisms underlying species distributions and coexistence is both a priority and a challenge for biodiversity hotspots such as the Neotropics. Here, we highlight that Mullerian mimicry, where defended prey species display similar warning signals, is key to the maintenance of biodiversity in the c. 400 species of the Neotropical butterfly tribe Ithomiini (Nymphalidae: Danainae). We show that mimicry drives large-scale spatial association among phenotypically similar species, providing new empirical evidence for the validity of Muller's model at a macroecological scale. Additionally, we show that mimetic interactions drive the evolutionary convergence of species climatic niche, thereby strengthening the co-occurrence of co-mimetic species. This study provides new insights into the importance of mutualistic interactions in shaping both niche evolution and species assemblages at large spatial scales. Critically, in the context of climate change, our results highlight the vulnerability to extinction cascades of such adaptively assembled communities tied by positive interactions.


biodiversity hotspot; climatic niche; community composition; evolutionary convergence; extinction cascade; Mullerian mimicry; mutualistic interactions; Neotropical butterflies; spatial co-occurrence; species assemblages

Published in

Ecology Letters
2023, Volume: 26, number: 6, pages: 843-857
Publisher: WILEY

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