Heliconius melpomene is a widespread neotropical species well known for its geographic diversity in colour pattern. Throughout its range, H. melpomene is co-mimetic with Heliconius erato, and both species have around 30 named geographic sub-species. H. melpomene is generally less abundant than H. erato, but both are found in open areas. H. melpomene can however be locally common in river edges and along streams.
H. melpomene is an ecological host plant specialist in Central America, where it only feeds on either Passiflora oerstedii or Passiflora menispermifolia. In other parts of the range however it is more of a generalist and can be found feeding on several different Passiflora species. Even in Central America, the larvae will happily develop on most species of Passiflora, so the specialisation is due to the oviposition preferences of the females (Smiley, 1978).
H. melpomene occurs from sea level to 1,400 m in forests edges. Usually individuals fly erratically and in the lower story. Females mate multiply and adults roost in small groups at night at 2-10 m above ground on twigs or tendrils.
The genetic basis of the geographic variation in colour pattern has been extensively worked out over many years of crossing experiments (Sheppard et al., 1985). Just a few genes of major effect control most of the changes. These loci have recently been shown to be shared across several different Heliconius species (Joron et al., 2006).
Etymology: Melpomene is the Muse of tragedy. She is usually represented with a tragic mask and wearing the cothurnus (the boots traditionally worn by tragic actors). Sometimes she holds a knife or a club in one hand, and the mask in the other.
The original description of Heliconius melpomene (Linnaeus 1758) can be seen here.
Data used to generate range maps compiled by Neil Rosser.
Early stages: Eggs are yellow and approximately 1.5 x 1 mm (h x w). Females usually place eggs singly on stipules and young leaves of the host plant. Mature larvae have a white body with black spots and spines, yellow anal plate and orange head with two black horns; length is around 1.5 cm. Caterpillars are solitary or in small groups of 2-3 individuals. Pupae are brown with gold spots on the dorsum, the thorax is strongly bowed and have five pairs of black spines in the abdomen. The head has short head horns and the antennae have many short black spines (Brown, 1981; DeVries, 1997).
Adult: Heliconius melpomene butterflies are black with a variety of yellow or red bands on forewings and/or hindwings. Forewing length: 35-39 mm.