What can hybrid zones tell us about speciation? The case of Heliconius erato and H. himera (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae)
To understand speciation we need to study the genetics and ecology of intermediate cases where interspecific hybridization still occurs. Two closely related species of Heliconius butterflies meet this criterion: Heliconius himera is endemic to dry forest and thorn scrub in southern Ecuador and northern Peru, while its sister species, H. erato, is ubiquitous in wet forest throughout south and central America. In three known zones of contact, the two species remain distinct, while hybrids are found at low frequency. Collections in southern Ecuador show that the contact zone is about 5 km wide, half the width of the narrowest clines between colour pattern races of H. erato. The narrowness of this cline argues that very strong selection (s ≈ 1) is maintaining the parapatric distributions of these two species. The zone is closely related with a habitat transition from wet to dry forest, which suggests that the narrow zone of parapatry is maintained primarily by ecological adaptation. Selection on colour pattern loci, assortative mating and hybrid inviability may also be important. The genetics of hybrids between the two species shows that the major gene control of pattern elements is similar to that found in previous studies of H. erato races, and some of the loci are homologous. This suggests that similar genetic processes are involved in the morphological divergence of species and races. Evidence from related Heliconius supports a hypothesis that ecological adaptation is the driving force for speciation in the group.