The incredible diversity of colour patterns in coral reef fishes has intrigued biologists for centuries. Yet, despite the many proposed explanations for this diversity in coloration, definitive tests of the role of ecological factors in shaping the evolution of particular colour pattern traits are absent. Patterns such as spots and eyespots (spots surrounded by concentric rings of contrasting colour) have often been assumed to function for predator defence by mimicking predators' enemies' eyes, deflecting attacks or intimidating predators, but the evolutionary processes underlying these functions have never been addressed. Striped body patterns have been suggested to serve for both social communication and predator defence, but the impact of ecological constraints remains unclear. We conducted the first comparative analysis of colour pattern diversity in butterflyfishes (Family: Chaetodontidae), fishes with conspicuous spots, eyespots and wide variation in coloration. Using a dated molecular phylogeny of 95 species (approx. 75% of the family), we tested whether spots and eyespots have evolved characteristics that are consistent with their proposed defensive function and whether the presence of spots and body stripes is linked with species' body length, dietary complexity, habitat diversity or social behaviour. Contrary to our expectations, spots and eyespots appeared relatively recently in butterflyfish evolution and are highly evolutionarily labile, suggesting that they are unlikely to have played an important part in the evolutionary history of the group. Striped body patterns showed correlated evolution with a number of ecological factors including habitat type, sociality and dietary complexity. Our findings question the prevailing view that eyespots are an evolutionary response to predation pressure, providing a valuable counter example to the role of these markings as revealed in other taxa.
2013. Vol. 280, no 1757