A global phylogeny of butterflies reveals their evolutionary history, ancestral hosts and biogeographic origins

Akito Y. Kawahara*, Caroline Storer, Ana Paula S. Carvalho, David M. Plotkin, Fabien L. Condamine, Mariana P. Braga, Emily A. Ellis, Ryan A. St Laurent, Xuankun Li, Vijay Barve, Liming Cai, Chandra Earl, Paul B. Frandsen, Hannah L. Owens, Wendy A. Valencia-Montoya, Kwaku Aduse-Poku, Emmanuel F.A. Toussaint, Kelly M. Dexter, Tenzing Doleck, Amanda MarkeeRebeccah Messcher, Y. Lan Nguyen, Jade Aster T. Badon, Hugo A. Benítez, Michael F. Braby, Perry A.C. Buenavente, Wei Ping Chan, Steve C. Collins, Richard A. Rabideau Childers, Even Dankowicz, Rod Eastwood, Zdenek F. Fric, Riley J. Gott, Jason P.W. Hall, Winnie Hallwachs, Nate B. Hardy, Rachel L.Hawkins Sipe, Alan Heath, Jomar D. Hinolan, Nicholas T. Homziak, Yu Feng Hsu, Yutaka Inayoshi, Micael G.A. Itliong, Daniel H. Janzen, Ian J. Kitching, Krushnamegh Kunte, Gerardo Lamas, Michael J. Landis, Elise A. Larsen, Torben B. Larsen, Jing V. Leong, Vladimir Lukhtanov, Crystal A. Maier, Jose I. Martinez, Dino J. Martins, Kiyoshi Maruyama, Sarah C. Maunsell, Nicolás Oliveira Mega, Alexander Monastyrskii, Ana B.B. Morais, Chris J. Müller, Mark Arcebal K. Naive, Gregory Nielsen, Pablo Sebastián Padrón, Djunijanti Peggie, Helena Piccoli Romanowski, Szabolcs Sáfián, Motoki Saito, Stefan Schröder, Vaughn Shirey, Doug Soltis, Pamela Soltis, Andrei Sourakov, Gerard Talavera, Roger Vila, Petr Vlasanek, Houshuai Wang, Andrew D. Warren, Keith R. Willmott, Masaya Yago, Walter Jetz, Marta A. Jarzyna, Jesse W. Breinholt, Marianne Espeland, Leslie Ries, Robert P. Guralnick, Naomi E. Pierce*, David J. Lohman*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)


Butterflies are a diverse and charismatic insect group that are thought to have evolved with plants and dispersed throughout the world in response to key geological events. However, these hypotheses have not been extensively tested because a comprehensive phylogenetic framework and datasets for butterfly larval hosts and global distributions are lacking. We sequenced 391 genes from nearly 2,300 butterfly species, sampled from 90 countries and 28 specimen collections, to reconstruct a new phylogenomic tree of butterflies representing 92% of all genera. Our phylogeny has strong support for nearly all nodes and demonstrates that at least 36 butterfly tribes require reclassification. Divergence time analyses imply an origin ~100 million years ago for butterflies and indicate that all but one family were present before the K/Pg extinction event. We aggregated larval host datasets and global distribution records and found that butterflies are likely to have first fed on Fabaceae and originated in what is now the Americas. Soon after the Cretaceous Thermal Maximum, butterflies crossed Beringia and diversified in the Palaeotropics. Our results also reveal that most butterfly species are specialists that feed on only one larval host plant family. However, generalist butterflies that consume two or more plant families usually feed on closely related plants.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)903-913
Number of pages11
JournalNature Ecology and Evolution
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2023 Jun

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


Dive into the research topics of 'A global phylogeny of butterflies reveals their evolutionary history, ancestral hosts and biogeographic origins'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this