Over the ages, they have mastered the science of blending in to stand out.
As I got home late one night, I noticed a butterfly fluttering around my drawing room. Exhausted after an endless day, I let it be and forgot about it until I entered the room again the next morning. The poor thing, trapped all night, flittered about as I began airing the room. I tried coaxing it out, and then I tried to catch it, but when all my attempts failed I eventually left it alone. It settled on a table lamp in the corner of the room, beside a window, as I sat on the sofa with my hubby and a cup of tea.
Dainty, colourful, and radiant, butterflies are a feast for the eyes. From the familiar glass-wing butterfly with transparent wings, to morpho butterflies that are seen by pilots from half a mile away, as flashes of vivid blue above the South American rainforest, these flying insects vary a great deal. Over the ages, they have mastered the science of blending in to stand out. Their natural charisma and ability to influence perceptions is borrowed to make the term ‘social butterfly’.
But, why does a butterfly need all that colour?
The world of butterflies is beyond imagination. Their colour patterns, which include ultraviolet markings invisible to us, are billboards for mates to recognise each other, from among the 18,000 species found today. Bright colours and striking patterns, as of the monarch butterfly, are warnings to predators that it’s bad-tasting — for which it eats poisonous plants as a caterpillar and stores toxins in itself — while other butterflies cleverly mimic those colours and patterns for protection. Some with markings of other creatures such as eye spots trick predators into thinking that they face a larger creature. While some colours are used cunningly as camouflage, brighter ones are flashed as a ploy to confuse and elude predators. Conspicuous and low-ranked on the food chain, butterflies employ smart survival strategies to avoid becoming easy prey.
Looking at the pretty lemon butterfly perched on the lamp shade, I wondered what its fate would be. Would it find its way out before it was too late? There was Pixie, my shadow of a dog that I was sure wouldn’t harm a fly, but we also had Marco, a kitten foundling, a notorious bundle of teeth and claws, so adventurous, that he needed rescuing from his own adventures. I was tempted to intervene and put the butterfly out but I held back. Whatever happens to it is its fate, and who am I to tamper with it? I did leave the windows and the front door open, and it undisturbed to figure its way out, without the confusion of glass, which, just like a butterfly’s wings, are colourless.
Formed by layers of chitin, which also makes up an insect’s exoskeleton, the wings are transparent-thin. Yet they look colourful, in the same way, soap bubbles appear multi-coloured. Orange, yellow and black, on them, are from ordinary chemical pigments in their wings. The browns and yellows, from melanin — the pigment that gives colour to our skin too — are the butterfly’s true colours. Radiant blues, purples and whites are optical illusions, resulting from the way the wing is structured, which affects how light interacts with it and is reflected off it.
Thousands of microscopic scales with pigments, overlapping in rows like roof tiles, cover the butterfly’s wings, and thus, its Greek name,“Lepidoptera” meaning ‘scaly wings’ creating a play of light called iridescence. This happens when light, passing through a transparent multilayered surface, is reflected more than once, in such a way that the multiple reflections complement and compound one another. Lights of the same wavelength echo one another, intensifying the colour.
Iridescence gives butterfly wings a very rich colour that changes with every angle of view. This awesome effect, also seen in peacocks, hummingbirds and mother of pearl seashells, makes the butterfly once visible and once not — and thus, also difficult to catch.
While iridescence appears fleeting, it is also strangely permanent. Ordinary inks and colours fade away over time, but, as long as the wing structure is intact, butterfly wings can stay colourful forever.
Enjoying my Sunday morning, I sipped my tea, with Pixie at my feet as usual. Marco dashed about the room with a twig from the verandah creeper, and the butterfly was still in the same position. I kept an eye on it, wondering how long it would take, if ever, to get the drift and head out. As shadows appeared in the garden outside, dew drops vanished from the grass and leaves. Returning to the butterfly in the corner, I had a feeling that it had what it takes to make it, an indomitable spirit with the power to shape-shift.
From a minuscule egg, laid by the adult female butterfly, it emerges in a few days as a caterpillar, an eating machine with the sole purpose of storing food for adulthood. It devours the eggshell and the leaves on which it hatched and moults several times as it bulks up. When fully fuelled, it turns into a pupa, and eventually, splits open to reveal the pupal shell. In a few days the adult butterfly emerges with a mission to mate and lay eggs. Having done so, the male usually dies, while the female scouts for the perfect plant to lay her eggs, and begins the cycle again.
The plight of the butterfly struck a chord with me. I’d been there: feeling trapped, confused and helpless, looking for a solution, when all I needed was to be calm, assess the situation rationally, and heed my instincts.
The stage was set 125 million years ago, when for the first time ever, the landscape burst with colour of the very first flowers, inviting a host of new pollinating insects to the scene. Bees came first, their symbiotic relationship with flowers probably drove the diversity of colours among flowers to attract them. Butterflies followed suit, 20 million years later, coming out in the day to make the most of this colourful new world.
Evolved from moths — their nocturnal Lepidopteran cousins — butterflies are a group of moths that are active during the day. Becoming diurnal, they adapted to light and developed their bright coloured, elaborately patterned wings, primarily used for display, distinct from their cousins. The story of butterfly evolution merges with that of moths, which goes farther back in time as fossils of scales left by moths are found in the same rocks as that of dinosaurs. But why did moths make the switch to butterflies?
It was thought that butterflies evolved 40–50 million years ago, as that’s when the first butterfly fossils appear in the fossil record, mostly known from the famous Florissant fossil beds of North America. But a recent DNA analysis last year showed that butterflies diverged from moths 100 millions years ago. A fossil caterpillar with its characteristic spinneret, the body part that produces silk, typical of all modern butterflies and moths, was reported from a 125 million year old Lebanese amber, which is as far back as the fossil records went.
The group of moths that later become butterflies started coming out in daylight to take advantage of a new fuel source that became available then : flowers. As most flowers close up at night, by switching to daytime, they were able to take advantage of the nectar of flowering plants. Their proboscis — the tube-like mouth-part most Lepidopterans have — was thought to have developed in response to flowers.
But a recent discovery of fossilised insect remains found in Germany, shows that Lepidopterans had proboscises 70 million years before flowers evolved. With their proboscis in place, they could feed on whatever they wanted: sugary liquids, animal dung, and in one case, even the tears of sleeping birds when the environment had become a lot drier. And so, when flowers appeared on the scene, Lepidopterans were perfectly equipped to access their nectar.
As early butterflies became active during the day, they discarded their muted browns and greys that had served them well in the dark and donned a variety of bright new colours to blend in with their colourful surroundings and to attract mates. Their eyesight too, developed to see colour better, even ultraviolet light, used primarily for checking out mates, while moths continued to court using pheromones. A surprising lack of lepidopteran fossils makes each new fossil discovery push the timeline back further, forcing a rethink.
Though the story of butterfly evolution is patchy, a strong thread emerges of butterflies crafting themselves as the master of adaptation.
I sat back reflecting and thinking on behalf of the butterfly. Should it go looking for an exit and risk getting spotted by the kitten? Or should it chance being discovered, waiting for a window of opportunity to make its escape? The fate of the butterfly now became all-important to me.
Getting out alive was one thing. But making it once outside was quite another. My concern shifted to the space outside the window, making me responsible. The garden that I pride myself on, with its exotic plants, manicured lawn, trimmed bushes and wide beds of flowers, requiring regular doses of fertilisers and the removal of unwanted plants and pests, along with the paved driveway, painted walls, chemicals draining from my kitchen and baths, tilted the odds against the butterfly. My patch of green in a concrete jungle was an oasis, but it was far from an ocean.
Butterflies virtually freeze when it’s cold and need to warm up their muscles to be able to fly. They seek out sunny spots to bask in, wings outstretched. When too warm, they head for shade and the cool of puddles. In the cold season, they hibernate, allowing the last generation of the season to live the longest. Some migrate to warmer regions, from North America to Mexico, guided only by ultraviolet light.
Changing form, function, and perceptions, the butterfly’s is a story of hope, of adapting to but not being defined by circumstances. Graceful and poised, the ever-changing butterfly is a survivor.
Through the chat with my hubby, my mind kept darting to the butterfly, eager to see nature play out. In my reflections, the frail little thing that I first saw, took on a persona that blew my mind. Its delicate beauty belied the stuff it’s made of.
My cup tilted to its full. As I was caressed by a steady breeze coming in through the windows, the butterfly suddenly took off, bobbing about for a while before floating out into the warm, autumn sunshine — to freedom and life.