Seasonal polyphenism, in which different forms of a species are produced at different times of the year, is a common form of phenotypic plasticity among insects. Here I show that the production of dark fifth-instar caterpillars of the eastern black swallowtail butterfly, Papilio polyxenes, is a seasonal polyphenism, with larvae reared on autumnal conditions being significantly darker than larvae reared on midsummer conditions. Both rearing photoperiod and temperature were found to have individual and synergistic effects on larval darkness. Genetic analysis of variation among full-sibling families reared on combinations of two different temperatures and photoperiods is consistent with the hypothesis that variation in darkness is heritable. In addition, the genetic correlation in larval darkness across midsummer and autumnal environments is not different from zero, suggesting that differential gene expression is responsible for the increase in larval darkness in the autumn. The relatively dark autumnal form was found to have a higher body temperature in sunlight than did the lighter midsummer form, and small differences in temperature were found to increase larval growth rate. These results suggest that this genetically based seasonal polyphenism in larval color has evolved in part to increase larval growth rates in the autumn.
Corresponding Editor: T. Kawecki