In a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, we studied the ecological structuring of ecuadorean communities of ithomiine butterflies. In particular we were interested in the question of whether mimetic species might also converge in their ecology as well as wing pattern.
After collecting ecological data over several years – including some entertaining attempts to catch ithomiines while hanging from ropes in the canopy – we showed that mimetic species are more likely to have similar ecology than expected given their phylogenetic relatedness.
This work adds a new twist to the field of phylogenetic community ecology – where it is generally assumed that species are similar due to shared ancestry but diverge due to competitive interactions. We argue that mutualistic interactions can also lead to greater ecological similarity than expected by chance.
We are no longer working on this project in my group, but Marianne Elias, has continued this work based in Paris, in collaboration with Keith Willmott.