Speciation, adaptation and morphological diversification; Evolution and  genetics of butterfly wing patterns

I have a broad interest in biology encompassing the fields of natural selection theory, genetics, population and community ecology, and conservation biology. The long-term goal of my lab is to study the organization of biological diversity, the selective processes that shape its evolution, and the means to preserve it in the Indian Region. We specifically use two systems as microcosms to study a range of phenomena that fascinate us, such as morphological evolution, sexual dimorphism and polymorphism, geographical distribution of animals, and speciation.

Our first study system is Batesian mimicry, which is a phenomenon whereby unprotected prey species (called “mimics”) gain protection from predators by mimicking toxic or otherwise protected species (called “models”). Predators learn to avoid models based on prior experience, and subsequently avoid eating mimics due to misidentification. Hundreds of mimetic insects, and especially butterflies, are known from tropical forests. There is tremendous variation in Batesian mimicry: mimicry can be sexually monomorphic, polymorphic or sex-limited within and across species. Our research aims to understand selective pressures that favor such variation in mimetic color patterns, and uncover its genetic basis. Read more about this work on our lab website.

Our second study system is Indian butterflies. India’s butterfly diversity is spread across four globally recognized biodiversity hotspots, and it offers virtually unlimited opportunities to study biogeography, community ecology, population biology and conservation issues. Some Indian butterfly species also exhibit seasonally variable wing patterns, large-scale annual migrations, and phenomenal boom-and-bust population cycles, which make them excellent model organisms to address a wide variety of scientific problems. We study all these phenomena as part of our various ongoing projects. Read more on our lab website.

Selected publications (updated January 2016):

Su, S., M. Lim, and K. Kunte. 2015. Prey from the eyes of predators: colour discriminability of aposematic and mimetic butterflies from an avian visual perspective. Evolution, 69:2985-2994. This work was featured on the cover of the journal issue, and in several popular science news stories in PhysOrg, EurekAlert, The Hindu, The Statesman, and NCBS News, among others.

Kunte, K. 2015. A new species of Hypolycaena (Lepidoptera: Lycenidae) from Arunachal Pradesh, north-eastern India. The Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera, 48:21-27. See press release or popular science coverage of this paper in The Hindu, The Telegraph, National Geographic Traveller India and Times of India, among many others.

Toussaint, E. F. A., J. Morinière, C. J. Müller, K. Kunte, B. Turlin, A. Hausmann, and M. Balke. 2015. Comparative molecular species delimitation in the charismatic Nawab butterflies (Nymphalidae, Charaxinae, Polyura). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 91:194-209.

Kunte, K., and D. Agashe (guest editors). 2015. Evolutionary Biology, in Current Science, 108:1835-1873.

Kunte, K., W. Zhang, A. Tenger-Trolander, D. H. Palmer, A. Martin, R. D. Reed, S. P. Mullen, and M. R. Kronforst. 2014. doublesex is a mimicry supergene. Nature, 507:229-232. See popular science coverage of this paper in Nature, Nature India, NCBS News, The Scientist, National Geographic's Phenomena blog, Mongabay, The Hindu, and ScienceDaily.

Lasley, R. M. Jr., A. Jain, and K. Kunte. 2013. Alleviating poverty in India: Biodiversity's role. Science, 341:840-841.

Zhang, K. Kunte, and M. R. Kronforst. 2013. Genome-wide characterization of adaptation and speciation in tiger swallowtail butterflies using de novo transcriptome assemblies. Genome Biology and Evolution, 5:1233-1245.

Kumaraswamy, S., and K. Kunte. 2013. Integrating biodiversity and conservation with modern agricultural landscapes. Biodiversity and Conservation, 22:2735-2750.

Sondhi, S., K. Kunte, G. Agavekar, R. Lovalekar, and K. Tokekar. 2013. Butterflies of the Garo Hills. Samrakshan Trust (New Delhi), Titli Trust (Dehradun), and Indian Foundation for Butterflies (Bengaluru). xvi + 200pp.

Kunte, K., C. Shea, M. L. Aardema, J. M. Scriber, T. E. Juenger, L. E. Gilbert, and M. R. Kronforst. 2011. Sex chromosome mosaicism and hybrid speciation among tiger swallowtail butterflies. PLoS Genetics, 7:e1002274.

Tiple, A., D. Agashe, A. M. Khurad and K. Kunte. 2009. Population dynamics and seasonal polyphenism of Chilades pandava butterfly (Lycaenidae) in central India. Current Science, 97:1774-1779.

Kunte, K. 2009. Female-limited mimetic polymorphism: A review of theories and a critique of sexual selection as balancing selection. Animal Behaviour, 78:1029-1036.

Kunte, K. 2009. The diversity and evolution of Batesian mimicry in Papilio swallowtail butterflies. Evolution, 63:2707-2716.

Kunte, K. 2008. Mimetic butterflies support Wallace's model of sexual dimorphism. Proceedings of the Royal Society, B, 275:1617-1624.

Kunte, K. 2008. Competition and species diversity: Removal of dominant species increases diversity in Costa Rican butterfly communities. Oikos, 117:69-76.

Kunte, K. 2007. Allometry and functional constraints on proboscis lengths in butterflies. Functional Ecology, 21:982-987.

Kunte, K. 2000. Butterflies of Peninsular India. Universities Press (Hyderabad) and Indian Academy of Sciences, Bengaluru.