Short profile: Antónia Monteiro is appointed Professor at NUS and at Yale-NUS in Singapore. She started her academic career with a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and Environmental Sciences at the University of Lisbon in 1992. Then she continued her studies with a PhD about “The Evolutionary Genetics and Development Basis of Eyespot Morphology in Butterfly Wings” at University of Edingburgh. Thereafter, she held positions at Harvard University, Leiden University, University of Buffalo, Yale University and now she is at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Professor Monteiro has a special interest in the evolution of butterfly wing patterns.
In our interview, we discuss the beauty of butterfly wings, their evolution, her research and her inspirations with Prof. Monteiro:
KHAMAMA: How did you get fascinated by butterfly wing patterns?
Prof. Monteiro: As an undergraduate I liked the field of genetics and insects, which have a large number of offspring; hence are ideal species to work with in research. However, I did not want to work on the research insect Drosophila (fruit flies). At the time I thought flies were too small and too boring and there were too many labs working on them. Butterflies, on the other hand, were beautiful and there was still very few people researching about them. At that time I also came across a book written by a physicist, Fred Hoyle, who talked briefly about the evolution of moth eyespots. What he said intrigued me. I decided to look for a lab that reared butterflies with eyespots to pursue an honours research project during my final year at University. I ended up staying in this lab for a part of my PhD and later also for a postdoctoral research project.
KHAMAMA: What purposes do the countless different butterfly wing patterns and colours have?
Prof. Monteiro: A lot of research still needs to be done in this area. But, in general there are two main purposes for wing patterns – to attract mates and to escape predation. Often the patterns on the dorsal (inside) sides of the wings are bright and splashy and are used for mate attraction, whereas the patterns on the ventral (outside) sides are more cryptic and motley and serve more of an anti-predation role.
KHAMAMA: Why are butterfly wing colours sometimes iridescent? How are the colours on butterfly wings created?
Prof. Monteiro: There is still a lot to be learned in this area and multiple labs are interested in the physics of butterfly wing colours, especially iridescent structural colours. These colours are produced by the interaction of light with the finely structured surface of the scales on the wing. Each scale is the product of a single cell and, when the cell dies, what remains are complex super-fine layers of chitin interspersed with air, which are able to bend, reflect, and enhance specific wavelengths of light in particular ways to give you the iridescent colours. Butterflies also use pigments on their scales, and these, together with the structured chitin layers can give you a large palette of colours.
KHAMAMA: In 2014 you showed in a spectacular lab experience that the wing colour of the butterfly species, called Bicyclus anynana, can be changed from almost plain brown to having colourful violet highlights. How did you achieve this fascinating research result?
Prof. Monteiro: This was achieved by means of an artificial selection experiment targeting a change in UV colour, present on the wings but invisible to our eyes, towards visible violet/blue colour. Ultimately we changed the thickness of one of these chitin layers in the wing scales – causing violet/blue wavelengths of light to be enhanced when bouncing off the scales.
KHAMAMA: Did you give the self-lab-bread violet form of the butterfly species Bicyclus anynana a special name?
Prof. Monteiro: We merely called it the “blue line” although the colour we achieved was more of a violet/blue colour.
KHAMAMA: The research you are conducting in terms of butterfly wing patterns and colours is always related to evolution. What can we learn from butterflies about evolution?
Prof. Monteiro: Many things in fact. The above experiment showed us that structural colours can change gradually and almost in no time at all, given the right selection pressure. In addition, we are also using butterflies to understand how complex novel traits arise in organisms. This is one of the less studied, but most fascinating aspects of evolution in my view. For instance, eyespots appear to have originated from the recruitment of pre-existing complex genetic regulatory networks repurposed for a new function in the body. One of these networks may have been involved in specifying legs and antennae, and the other network was possibly involved in healing wounds.
KHAMAMA: We at KHAMAMA love the intensively colourful and shiny butterfly wings the most. Which butterfly species is in your opinion the most aesthetic species? Why is it so particularly fascinating to you?
Prof. Monteiro: I used to love the Common Map butterfly (Cyrestis thyodamas). This is a species of nymphalid butterfly found in the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia. I found the patterns of the wings of this butterfly extremely “modern” like a beautiful abstract painting.
But my first love was an amazing Charaxes butterfly, I encountered it in the fields of Portugal, Charaxes jasius. I felt like I had discovered an amazing natural jewel.
KHAMAMA: What is the one thing everyone should now about butterflies? What is the most striking research finding about butterflies you want to share?
Prof. Monteiro: Perhaps what everyone should know about butterflies is that most species only lay eggs on a very specific set of host plants so if you want to have a butterfly garden you need to plant a diversity of host plants in your garden. This is in addition to nectaring plants for the adults – which can be less specific.
Relative to the most striking research finding, this is difficult as there are many recent findings that are amazing, especially now that gene editing is possible in butterflies. Recently one of my students, Anupama Prakash, discovered a gene that when mutated makes dorsal (inside) wing surfaces in butterflies look like (outside) ventral wing surfaces. I think this is a pretty cool finding.
KHAMAMA: What are your most current research projects about?
Prof. Monteiro: The two largest current projects in the lab aim to discover the origin of butterfly eyespots by examining the genetic wiring details of genes expressed in eyespots, whereas the second project aims to elucidate the origin of the ability of eyespots to respond to environmental rearing temperature. Both projects are looking at the origin of complexity in organisms – a complex color pattern, and a complex mode of environmental regulation for that color pattern. To address the question posed by the second project we have been collaborating with a butterfly farm in Penang, Malaysia, who helped us rear a variety of different butterfly species at different temperatures. I will be very happy when both of these projects get published.
KHAMAMA: Besides butterflies, what inspires you?
Prof. Monteiro: Art. I love all kinds of art and I am particularly drawn towards creative uses of colour.
KHAMAMA: Thank you so much for your precious time and this exceptional interview! We are honoured that we could interview you as one of the few researchers internationally who are specialised in butterfly wing patterns. We can’t wait to hear more about your future research results and findings!
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