Winged Beauties of the Tropics
By Awake! writer in Spain
FOR some travelers the first visit to a tropical rain forest may prove somewhat disappointing. They look forward to seeing exotic animals and birds; but most of the animals are nocturnal, and many of the birds are out of sight in the forest canopy.
“There are plenty of signs that the forest is full of life—sounds are all around,” explains The Mighty Rain Forest. Nevertheless, the book adds: “Unless a visitor is willing to spend a lot of time patiently waiting and exploring, the chances are that no animals will be seen except for butterflies.” Happily for visitors, the tropical butterflies provide flashes of color and beauty that make a trip to the rain forest unforgettable.
Tropical butterflies stand out for their size, variety, and color. The green of the forest is an ideal backdrop for the brilliant blue, red, and yellow butterflies that flit about in the clearings. Apart from these traditional colors, in South America you may also see butterflies with transparent wings. Other species have wings whose undersides look even more spectacular than the top surfaces. The dull owl butterflies have huge owllike eyespots to brighten up their brown attire. But a few butterflies keep a low profile, and only the keenest observer realizes that he is looking at an insect rather than a dead leaf.
Often the sheer size of tropical butterflies catches the eye of the visitor. Some are larger than small birds and fly or glide just as vigorously. The number of different butterfly species inhabiting the rain forest is also remarkable. The Malaysian tropics harbor nearly a thousand species, and Peru provides haven for four thousand species—20 percent of the worldwide total.
Although a butterfly’s wing may exhibit a full range of colors, these hues generally do not depend on many different pigments. The wing comprises a transparent membrane on which thousands of tiny scales are attached, and each scale usually has just one pigment. However, scales of different colors combine to give the impression to the observer of yet another color, as do the colored pixels of a television set.
You might imagine that the best time to see these beauties is when they are hovering over flowers, but this is usually not the case in the rain forest. Most flowers bloom high up in the canopy, and while they provide a feast of nectar for the butterflies, they cannot be seen by a visitor on the ground. Fortunately, male butterflies come down to earth for salt. It is thought that the mating process may deplete them of necessary minerals, which they replenish by sucking up moisture from wet ground. Thus, a damp forest path or the edge of a small stream may prove the ideal place to observe the butterflies of the rain forest.
You may also spot a group of butterflies perched together in a communal resting area. The custom of roosting together is quite common among tropical butterflies. Some may allow you to approach them as they bask on a leaf in the morning sunlight. Even though certain species rarely seem to alight anywhere, just watching their colorful flight can brighten up your visit to the rain forest.
[Box/Pictures on page 18]
A Lepidoptera Beauty Parade
Although it is difficult to judge which butterfly or moth is the most beautiful, certain groups undoubtedly stand out.*
Swallowtail butterflies (Papilionidae)
A large family of colorful butterflies, many of which have a small “tail” on their hind wings. They are fast fliers, often feeding on flowers of the forest canopy.
Morpho butterflies (Morphidae)
Found only in South and Central America, these butterflies have striking, metallic-blue wings. Their iridescent color depends on diffraction of light. As they lazily flap their wings, the intense blue switches on and off according to the angle of the light.
Bird-wing butterflies (Ornithoptera)
These butterflies come from Southeast Asia and tropical Australia. As the name suggests, they are huge butterflies with wings larger than many birds. Their beauty and rarity make them literally worth their weight in gold.
Uraniid moths (Uraniidae)
Classified as moths rather than butterflies, these magnificent insects fly during the day. The Chrysiridia madagascariensis of Madagascar, whose wings exhibit all the colors of the rainbow, has been described as “the most beautiful insect in the world.”
Butterflies and moths make up the Lepidoptera order.
Morpho: Zoo, Santillana del Mar, Cantabria, España; all others in box: Faunia, Madrid
[Picture on page 16]
Transparent wings of “Hypoleria oto”
[Picture on page 16]
Hewitson’s blue hairstreak butterfly. Its underwings (at left) are as spectacular as the top surfaces (above)
[Picture on page 16, 17]
Goliath birdwing butterfly (actual size)
[Picture on page 17]
Owl butterflies’ underwings
[Picture on page 17]
[Picture on page 18]
Tropical butterflies sipping salty moisture from the ground
[Picture Credit Lines on page 16]
Hypoleria oto: Zoo, Santillana del Mar, Cantabria, España; all other photos: Faunia, Madrid
[Picture Credit Lines on page 17]
Dry-leaf and yellow butterflies: Zoo, Santillana del Mar, Cantabria, España; all other photos: Faunia, Madrid