A comparative analysis of the evolution of imperfect mimicry

Although exceptional examples of adaptation are frequently celebrated, some outcomes of natural selection seem far from perfect. For example, many hoverflies (Diptera: Syrphidae) are harmless (Batesian1) mimics of stinging Hymenoptera2. However, although some hoverfly species are considered excellent mimics, other species bear only a superficial resemblance to their models3 and it is unclear why this is so. To evaluate hypotheses that have been put forward to explain interspecific variation in the mimetic fidelity of Palearctic Syrphidae we use a comparative approach. We show that the most plausible explanation is that predators impose less selection for mimetic fidelity on smaller hoverfly species because they are less profitable prey items. In particular, our findings, in combination with previous results, allow us to reject several key hypotheses for imperfect mimicry: first, human ratings of mimetic fidelity are positively correlated with both morphometric measures and avian rankings, indicating that variation in mimetic fidelity is not simply an illusion based on human perception4; second, no species of syrphid maps out in multidimensional space as being intermediate in appearance between several different hymenopteran model species, as the multimodel hypothesis5requires; and third, we find no evidence for a negative relationship between mimetic fidelity and abundance, which calls into question the kin-selection6 hypothesis. By contrast, a strong positive relationship between mimetic fidelity and body size supports the relaxed-selection hypothesis7, 8, suggesting that reduced predation pressure on less profitable prey species limits the selection for mimetic perfection.