A few weeks ago I promised a post on butterflies and why they are one of the most fascinating creatures flitting across our world. It’s surprising, given their size and short lifespan, just how complex these little creatures are. So here are a few of the things that I’ve learnt over the past years as I’ve been working with them – and I apologize for my layman’s explanation – I am, after all, an artist and not a biologist or ecologist.
Butterflies must be among the most beautiful creatures, with their highly coloured and patterned wings. But their wings are biologically more complex than they would first seem – they are actually transparent. They’re formed from a protein which makes up an insect’s exoskeleton, but the layers of the protein are so thin that you can see right through them. The colours are formed by tiny scales of these proteins which reflect and refract light in various ways to give the appearance of colour and pattern.
Take a look at some of the macro-photographs of the wings of various butterflies here – they’re beautiful.
Ok, most of us learnt about the life cycle of the butterfly at school. Egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly, right? Right. But have you ever wondered exactly what goes on inside that chrysalis? After all, our adolescent butterfly goes in essentially as one creature and comes out as another.
Research suggests that the only part of the caterpillar that remains for the most part unchanged is its breathing apparatus. Other than this, it releases an enzyme which means that the caterpillar essentially digests itself into a liquid form (yuck). Certain clusters of cells are preserved, known as imaginal discs, which then grow the butterfly’s new form – the legs, wings, antenna – from this liquid. Find out more about this process here, and check out National Geographic for fascinating 3D scans of the transformation process inside the chrysalis.
Butterflies are some of the world’s most talented mimics, and this extends far beyond the ‘eyes’ on a peacock butterflies wings. Many a time have I found myself in a butterfly house thinking ‘hmmm, that leaf appears to be walking…’, coming to the realisation that I’m not looking at a leaf at all, but a butterfly.
© Peerajit Ditta-in | Dreamstime.com – Indian Leaf Butterfly exactly same like a dried leaf
More than this though, butterflies mimic each other, and were central to the development of the theory of natural selection as developed by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. Some butterflies are toxic, and some simply taste bad. Others are tasty little morsels… well, as far as birds and predators are concerned anyway. By mimicking the inedible butterflies, the more palatable species became an awful lot less appetizing to their predators. But it doesn’t end there. The toxic butterflies are also seen to mimic each other. Another naturalist, Fritz Müller, conceived that this occurred essentially to make them, and their foul taste, more easily recognisable to their potential predators, and thus, less susceptible to being eaten by an undiscerning mouth.
There’s a hugely interesting article by Sean B Carroll in the Telegraph, which goes into much more depth than I have here, which shows a wonderful visual example and which suggests that “no group of animals contributed more to the early growth of evolutionary science than butterflies”.
In 1979 the Large Blue butterfly became extinct on the British Isles. Extensive research was done to understand the butterfly’s natural ecology in order to reintroduce the species – which is now at it’s highest population for 60 years. The research uncovered a complex symbiotic relationship between the Large Blue, the Myrmica family of ants, and the oregano plant. Let’s start with the oregano. The herb exudes toxic fumes in order to fend off and deter insects that may damage the plant – a self defense mechanism. The Myrmica ants have he ability to detoxify the chemical, which means that they can live in the vicinity of the oregano without much threat from competing insects – although to the detriment of the plant, which has its roots disturbed and damaged by the tunneling ants. Meanwhile, the Large Blue caterpillar feeds on the buds of the oregano flower. When it’s ready (and notably around dusk when the Myrmica ants are feeding), the caterpillar drops to the ground and mimics the ants’ own grubs. The ants take the caterpillar to the safety of their tunnels and – get this – allow the hungry caterpillar to munch its way through their real grubs, in a gorging that can take out an entire ant colony. But despite an air of hostility on all sides, all parties receive enough of a benefit to make this a lasting relationship. The ants receive the protection of the oregano – which outweighs the risk of an intruding Large Blue Butterfly; the butterflies have a safe-haven for their growing young, and the oregano gets the benefit of the Large Blue reclaiming the territory of its roots. Through the understanding of this relationship – and the respective needs of the ants and the oregano within our environment – Large Blue populations have now been reintroduced in various locations throughout South West England – largely with the help and conservation efforts of the Butterfly Conservation charity, who I do hope you’ll feel inspired to support through 12 Acts of Kindness this month – and be in with a chance of winning some lovely art work for your walls.
So there you have it. Whilst cats do have an uncanny knack for leaving the house and not coming back on the odd days when you need to take them to the vets, they can’t create the same wonder and curiosity about the world as the little butterfly. They do give better cuddles though.
If you’re interested in finding out a little more about our humble butterflies, and small adjustments you can make in your garden to help them flourish, do check out the DIY Garden blog post on creating a butterfly garden. I’ll be implementing some of his suggestions, so check back to the blog later in the year to see how it’s progressing.