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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The adaptive value of melanism in alpine Colias butterflies (Lepidoptera:Pieridae) Roland, Jens


Many insect populations become darker at high elevations and high latitudes. Despite absence of empirical evidence, it is commonly believed that melanism allows more efficient basking by insects in sunlight, thereby raising body temperature and increasing activity. Variation in melanism within a single population of alpine Colias sulphur butterflies (Lepidoptera:Pieridae) allowed determination of the advantage, in cold environments, for this characteristic. Alternative hypotheses relating the effect of melanism to fecundity, predation, diel activity, and seasonal survivorship were tested by field and laboratory observation and experiment. At low temperature, melanistic females are more fecund. A balancing advantage for light coloured females does not exist at high temperatures. Dark individuals suffer lower predation rates at high altitude than do light individuals; the opposite is not true at low elevation. Duration of diel activity is markedly extended for darker butterflies under cool conditions, but only slightly for light individuals during warm sunny periods. Melanistic individuals are able to prolong the duration of activity for feeding, mate location, oviposition and escape from predation under cold conditions. This appears to the prime benefit for melanism in this population. This is the first demonstration, in a natural population, of the benefit of alpine melanism in insects.

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