Elevational clines in morphological traits of subtropical and tropical butterfly assemblages

Shuang Xing, Wenda Cheng, Akihiro Nakamura, Chin Cheung Tang, Evan J. Pickett, Shuyin Huang, Erica Odell, Eben Goodale, Uromi M. Goodale, Timothy C. Bonebrake*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


Morphological traits can determine the ecological niches and performance of ectotherms and structure their distributions along environmental gradients. The thermal melanism hypothesis and Bergmann's rule describe patterns of body colour luminance and body size along environmental gradients shaped by thermal influences on morphology. However, these patterns have rarely been investigated at the interspecific level for subtropical and tropical mountain environments. In this study, we sampled butterfly assemblages along elevations across three subtropical and tropical locations in China and examined how environmental factors affected body colour luminance and body size. We additionally reconstructed phylogenetic relationships among the sampled butterfly species and investigated morphology- elevation relationships within an evolutionary framework. Butterfly assemblages were consistently darker and larger at higher elevations across three replicate locations. Furthermore, based on a phylogenetic comparative analysis, we found that body colour luminance and body size of butterfly assemblages responded to elevation through both long-term processes and more recent environmental influences. Our findings support the thermal melanism hypothesis and Bergmann's rule from diverse subtropical and tropical butterfly assemblages, indicating elevation may structure the distributions of tropical species through morphology. The thermal functions of morphology should therefore be considered when investigating species distribution patterns and responses to environmental changes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)506-517
Number of pages12
JournalBiological Journal of the Linnean Society
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2 Mar 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Body size
  • Butterfly
  • Diversity
  • Elevation
  • Solar radiation
  • Subtropical
  • Temperature
  • Thermal adaptation
  • Thermal melanism
  • Tropical


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