My research focuses on wing patterning genetics and evolution of swallowtail butterflies in the genus Papilio. Wing patterning in this clade is closely tied to defensive Batesian mimicry, a predator avoidance adaptation. Papilio butterflies are harmless and palatable to predators but some have evolved wing patterns that resemble those of distantly-related toxic butterflies. When predators experience the harmful effects of toxic butterflies they generalize the negative experience and learn to avoid individuals with a similar wing pattern. Because predators must learn from direct experience, the benefit of mimicry is maximized when mimics are rare relative to their toxic counterparts. This selection for rarity has resulted in some lineages evolving sexually dimorphic mimicry (one sex is mimetic and the other is not) and/or polymorphic mimicry (multiple mimetic wing patterns resembling different toxic forms). I use genomic analyses to identify the loci controlling mimetic polymorphism in different lineages and developmental experiments to understand how these loci generate multiple wing patterns within single lineages.
My work with butterflies has given me unique opportunities both in Chicago and abroad. On campus I help maintain our lab’s populations of butterflies in the university greenhouse facility. This involves crossing different individuals, providing the appropriate host plants for butterflies to lay their eggs on, keeping track of developing caterpillars so they have enough to eat, and so on. I’ve also conducted field experiments and collected specimens in Singapore and Panamá and assisted with research at a butterfly farm in Malaysia, all while meeting great people along the way.