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Swallowtail butterfly wing and tail measurements

Cite this dataset

Nudds, Robert; Koutrouditsou, Lydia (2022). Swallowtail butterfly wing and tail measurements [Dataset]. Dryad.


The European swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon) is so named, because of the long and narrow prominences extending from the trailing edge of their hindwings and, although not a true tail, they are referred to as such. Despite being a defining feature, an unequivocal function for the tails is yet to be determined, with predator avoidance (diverting an attack from the rest of the body), and enhancement of aerodynamic performance suggested. The swallowtail, however, is sexually size dimorphic with females larger than males, but whether the tail is also sexually dimorphic is unknown. Here, museum specimens were used to determine whether sexual selection has played a role in the evolution of the swallowtail butterfly tails in a similar way to that seen in the tail streamers of the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica), where the males have longer streamers than those of the females. Previously identified sexual dimorphism in swallowtail butterfly size was replicated, but no evidence for dimorphism in tail length was found. If evolved to mimic antennae and a head to divert a predatory attack, and if an absolute tail size was the most effective for this, then the tail would probably be invariant with butterfly hindwing size. The slope of the relationship between tail length and size, however, although close to zero, was nonetheless statistically significantly above (tail length µ hindwing area 0.107 ± 0.011). The slope also did not equate to that expected for geometric similarity (tail length µ hindwing area 1/2) suggesting that tail morphology is not solely driven by aerodynamics. It seems likely then, that tail morphology is primarily determined by, and perhaps a compromise of several, factors associated with predator avoidance (e.g. false head mimicry and a startling function). Of course, experimental data are required to confirm this.