4.5 Article

A global phylogeny of butterflies reveals their evolutionary history, ancestral hosts and biogeographic origins


Volume 7, Issue 6, Pages 903-913


DOI: 10.1038/s41559-023-02041-9



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Butterflies are believed to have evolved alongside plants and dispersed globally in response to geological events, according to a new comprehensive phylogenetic study. The study sequenced genes from nearly 2,300 butterfly species and reconstructed a phylogenomic tree representing 92% of all genera, resulting in the reclassification of 36 butterfly tribes. The research also revealed that butterflies first fed on Fabaceae plants and originated in the Americas.
Butterflies are a diverse and charismatic insect group that are thought to have evolved with plants and dispersed throughout the world in response to key geological events. However, these hypotheses have not been extensively tested because a comprehensive phylogenetic framework and datasets for butterfly larval hosts and global distributions are lacking. We sequenced 391 genes from nearly 2,300 butterfly species, sampled from 90 countries and 28 specimen collections, to reconstruct a new phylogenomic tree of butterflies representing 92% of all genera. Our phylogeny has strong support for nearly all nodes and demonstrates that at least 36 butterfly tribes require reclassification. Divergence time analyses imply an origin similar to 100 million years ago for butterflies and indicate that all but one family were present before the K/Pg extinction event. We aggregated larval host datasets and global distribution records and found that butterflies are likely to have first fed on Fabaceae and originated in what is now the Americas. Soon after the Cretaceous Thermal Maximum, butterflies crossed Beringia and diversified in the Palaeotropics. Our results also reveal that most butterfly species are specialists that feed on only one larval host plant family. However, generalist butterflies that consume two or more plant families usually feed on closely related plants.


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