Changes in gene expression are a prominent feature of morphological evolution. These changes occur to hierarchical gene regulatory networks (GRNs) of transcription factor genes that regulate the expression of trait-building differentiation genes. While changes in the expression of differentiation genes are essential to phenotypic evolution, they can be caused by mutations within cis-regulatory elements (CREs) that drive their expression (cis-evolution) or within genes for CRE-interacting transcription factors (trans-evolution). Locating these mutations remains a challenge, especially when experiments are limited to one species that possesses the ancestral or derived phenotype. We investigated CREs that control the expression of the differentiation genes tan and yellow, the expression of which evolved during the gain, modification, and loss of dimorphic pigmentation among Sophophora fruit flies. We show these CREs to be necessary components of a pigmentation GRN, as deletion from Drosophila melanogaster (derived dimorphic phenotype) resulted in lost expression and lost male-specific pigmentation. We evaluated the ability of orthologous CRE sequences to drive reporter gene expression in species with modified (Drosophila auraria), secondarily lost (Drosophila ananassae), and ancestrally absent (Drosophila willistoni) pigmentation. We show that the transgene host frequently determines CRE activity, implicating trans-evolution as a significant factor for this trait’s diversity. We validated the gain of dimorphic Bab transcription factor expression as a trans-change contributing to the dimorphic trait. Our findings suggest an amenability to change for the landscape of trans-regulators and begs for an explanation as to why this is so common compared to the evolution of differentiation gene CREs.