Light habitats and the role of polarized iridescence in the sensory ecology of neotropical nymphalid butterflies (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae)

Jonathan M. Douglas, Thomas W. Cronin, Tsyr Huei Chiou, Nathaniel J. Dominy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Citations (Scopus)


The exploitation of polarized light may increase perceived visual contrast independent of spectrum and intensity and thus have adaptive value in forest habitats, where illumination varies greatly in brightness and spectral properties. Here we investigate the extent to which Costa Rican butterflies of the family Nymphalidae exhibit polarized wing reflectance and evaluate the types of habitats in which the trait is commonly found. We also examine the degree of polarized reflectance of wing patterns in representative species belonging to the nymphalid subfamilies Charaxinae, Heliconiinae, Morphinae and Nymphalinae. Polarized reflectance was evaluated using museum specimens illuminated with a light source that simulated the spectrum of ambient sunlight and viewed through a polarized filter. Of the 144 species examined, 75 species exhibited polarized reflectance patterns. These species were significantly more likely to occupy forest habitats than open habitats. A concentrated changes test performed on a phytogeny of the Nymphalidae, with the Papilionidae as an outgroup, provides further support for the correlated evolution of polarized iridescence and life in a forest light environment. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that the production and detection of polarized light may have adaptive communicative value in those species inhabiting forest habitats with complex light conditions. The potential utility of polarized iridescence and iridescent wing coloration within differing ambient spectral environments is discussed to provide a basis for future investigation of the polarized light ecology of butterflies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)788-799
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2007 Mar

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Insect Science


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