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Illustration by Katie McBride

A visiting lecturer in UR’s biology department is involved in curious research about ways that the reproductive lives of butterflies are a kind of evolutionary arms race, with measures, countermeasures, and escalations that would make a Cold War spy blush.

Some male butterflies create — well, how to put this delicately? — a waxy barrier designed to ensure their paternity of the future offspring by sealing their mate’s reproductive organs, i.e., a sort of chastity belt. Females, in turn, fight back by growing more complex organs. Males then respond with ever more creative strategies, the females adapt again, and the evolutionary cycle continues.

“Could this sexual one-upmanship ultimately result in new species?” asks a press release about the research from the Florida Museum of Natural History, where several of the researchers are based. “It’s a longstanding hypothesis and one that would help explain how butterflies became so diverse.”

UR’s Kwaku Aduse-Poku, a molecular phylogeneticist, helped untangle the process. His expertise allows him to use DNA sequences to reconstruct the butterflies’ physical changes over time.

He is an expert in the old world butterflies that the research focuses on, which are distributed across Africa, including in Ghana, where he grew up.

“I have seen most of them in the wild,” he said.