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Ancient wings unfurled

October 27, 2003 By John Whitfield This article courtesy of Nature News.

Computer simulation reconstructs extinct butterfly patterns.

A new computer simulation allows users to recreate butterfly evolution. The program shows how the patterns on insect wings might have morphed as species changed and diverged.

Ancient Wings, as the program is called, could help researchers and teachers to explore evolution, says its creator, Antónia Monteiro of the State University of New York in Buffalo. "You can never turn back the clock, but you can see what was likely to have happened," she says.

Monteiro studies a group of African butterflies called Bicyclus. "You can find 30 different species in a small part of the forest, all displaying a slightly different wing pattern. It's completely unknown what all these patterns mean," she says.

Her team recorded the wing patterns of 54 species of Bicyclus, and built a family tree showing how the different species are related using butterfly DNA sequences.

Ancient Wings estimates what the ancestral butterflies might have looked like1. It takes an average of living species' wings, biased towards those most closely related to the ancestor. Users click on different points of the tree, and the wings transform before their eyes.

The program opens a window on 15 million years of evolution. And it reveals that some of the most similar-looking species arrived at their patterns by very different routes.

This is really cool - it's so intuitive
Belinda Chang
University of Toronto

"This is really cool — it's so intuitive," says evolutionary biologist Belinda Chang of the University of Toronto in Canada. "It's critical to have visual representations of complex data."

The same approach could be used to reconstruct the shapes of ancient proteins based on the forms of existing ones, Chang says.


  1. Arbesman, S., Enthoven, L. & Monteiro, A. Ancient Wings: animating the evolution of butterfly wing patterns. BioSystems, 71, 289 - 295 doi:10.1016/S0303-2647(03)00086-8 (2003).


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