Beautiful Butterfly Wings Hold Sea Snail's Toxin

A Hebomoia glaucippe butterfly from Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.
A Hebomoia glaucippe butterfly from Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. Researchers report on Oct. 15, 2012, in the journal PNAS, that they have found a toxin previously only known in a sea snail in the wings of this butterfly. (Image credit: PNAS)

An Asian butterfly's white wings tipped with vibrant red-orange are not only eye catching, they contain a poison, scientists have found.

They share this venom with an unlikely counterpart: predatory sea snails, which harpoon their prey to inject a cocktail of paralyzing venoms, including this one.

The butterfly, Hebomoia glaucippe, likely uses the toxin as a defense rather than a weapon, writes the Austrian research team, noting that many of the butterfly's predators, including birds, ants and the orchid mantis, avoid the wings. Hungry geckos, however, may not be bothered by it, because they eat the entire animal, wings and all, they add.   

The team analyzed the proteins from the bodies and wings of H. glaucippe butterflies collected from multiple locations in southeastern Asia, finding a relatively high abundance of the toxin called glacontryphan-M. This toxin has so far only been found in the sea snail species Conus marmoreus, commonly known as the marble cone snail. 

The researchers write they are now examining samples of the butterfly collected elsewhere for the toxin and looking at other toxic animals for clues as to the evolutionary reason a butterfly and sea snail share an identical toxin.

The study was published online today (Oct. 15) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.