Condition dependence, quantitative genetics, and the potential signal content of iridescent ultraviolet butterfly coloration

Darrell J. Kemp*, Ronald L. Rutowski

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

125 Citations (Scopus)


Structural colors result from an interaction between light and the fine-scale physical structure of a surface, and are often extremely bright, chromatic, and iridescent. Given that these visual features depend upon the aggregate abundance and architectural precision of photonic structures, structurally colored sexual ornaments seem well placed to indicate a range of mate quality characteristics. We tested this hypothesis by investigating the signaling potential of structural coloration in the sexually dimorphic butterfly Colias eurytheme. Males of this species display iridescent ultraviolet (UV) markings (arising from multilayer thin films) that overlay a broad area of yellowish-orange pigmentation on their dorsal wing surface. Only the structural UV has demonstrated function as a sexual signal; hence we predicted that it should contain more reliable phenotypic and/or genetic quality information, which would be indicated by phenotypic and/or genetically mediated condition dependence. In two split-family breeding experiments we manipulated condition by exposing full siblings to different stressors at two different juvenile life-history stages: (1) reduced larval host-plant quality and (2) transient heat/cold shocks during metamorphosis. Both stressors had profound effects on key developmental and life-history traits. Each stressor also significantly affected male dorsal coloration; thus, the expression of both structural and pigmentary coloration is phenotypically condition dependent. As predicted, the strongest condition dependence was evident in the brightness and angular visibility (i.e., iridescence) of the UV. Characteristics of both the iridescent UV and pigmentary orange also exhibited moderate-high and significant heritability (H2 ∼ h2 ∼ 0.4-0.9). However, genetic and residual variances did not increase under stress; thus, the observed condition dependence was not genetically mediated as predicted if wing color trait signals "good" genes for the ability to either withstand or circumvent developmental stress. The heightened stress sensitivity of the iridescent UV suggests that it offers an informative lifetime indicator of juvenile environments and, henceforth, adult male phenotypic condition, which may be salient to females seeking a highly fertile and/or nutritious male ejaculate.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)168-183
Number of pages16
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Colias
  • Developmental stress
  • Genotype × environment interaction
  • Good genes
  • Honest signaling
  • Structural coloration


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