New research conducted by Marcus Kronforst of the University of Chicago has produced a change in evolutionary concepts that deal with the rate of evolution of new species from divergent populations that remain in contact and produce offspring. The study was published in the journal Cell Reports on Oct. 31, 2013.
Butterflies are defined to a great extent by their wing patterns. Wing patterns dictate mating habits between members of the same species and between species.
The researchers found that only a very small fraction of the butterfly genome changed when species diverged from each other. Comparison of the genome of the Heliconius butterflies to the genome of distant third species showed that hundreds of genomic changes had arisen quickly in evolutionary time sometime after the early differences took hold.
The researchers conclude that the genetic changes that produce different species occur early in evolutionary time and then proceed at an accelerated rate. This phenomenon is attributed to competition between gene flow between species that can mate with each other and natural selection.
The trait seen in butterflies may be applicable to other species. Insects are the most likely candidate due to the number of species of insects and the capacity for interbreeding between species.