HER fine silky hair bouncing in the breeze, the little girl pursues her “prey”—a lovely, delicate butterfly. Joining in her little game, the butterfly obligingly alights on this flower and that. Then, as if to tease, it flies away just as the tiny cupped hands are about to capture it. Suddenly, our little friend has an idea: Instead of noisily scrambling after the elusive butterfly, she slowly and quietly approaches it as it rests on a pretty wildflower. Wide-eyed, she is rewarded with a wonderful close-up view of one of the most colorful of God’s creations.
Shall we join her? Our own appreciation of this winged masterpiece will also grow.
See the three basic body sections? First, there is the head with its characteristic pair of clubbed antennae. These aid the senses of smell, touch, and perhaps even hearing. They help the butterfly locate its favorite food or a mate. Also, we note two large compound eyes capable of panoramic sight in full color. Can you see what looks like a tube rolled up and tucked under its head? This long tongue is called a proboscis. It uncoils to enable the butterfly to sip sweet nectar from flowers or taste other favorite foods.
The midsection of the body is called the thorax. Four lovely wings are attached here. The vibrant colors and intricate patterns that we see are actually produced by hundreds of tiny scales, each connected to a socket on the wing. These colored plates contain air, which makes the wing lightweight and acts as an excellent insulator for temperature control.
Three pairs of legs are also connected to the thorax. The legs have bristles that help many butterflies to respond to sounds.
Adult butterflies also have ‘taste buds’ on their feet. Researchers have found that when a butterfly’s feet touch something sweet, the tongue automatically uncoils, ready to feed. The North American monarch butterfly has taste organs in its feet that are 2,000 times more sensitive than the human tongue!
The last major body division is the abdomen, which contains the digestive system and the reproductive organs. Look closely at the segments of the abdomen, and you’ll see little holes through which a butterfly breathes. These are called spiracles.
A Master of Change
The butterfly we observe poised on the flower has not always been as delicate or as graceful. It has experienced some rapid and dramatic changes in form. This process of development is called complete metamorphosis. Drastic changes take place between the different stages of the one living organism.
Depending on the kind of butterfly, life begins as a tiny egg laid on the leaf of a plant that will be eaten by the larva—or better known by its other name, caterpillar—when it hatches. Some eggs may develop into caterpillars within three short days. Other eggs laid in the fall will pass the winter before hatching.
Once free of its eggshell home, the hungry caterpillar proceeds to devour the empty shell. Then it turns its attention to the host plant. The little creature is a virtual eating machine as it gorges itself to store up enough food to last through the lean days ahead. Butterfly specialists claim that if a six-pound human baby would gain weight at the same rate as caterpillars, at the end of two weeks the baby would tip the scales at eight tons!
Inevitably, as the caterpillar satisfies its voracious appetite, its body expands, and it literally outgrows its skin. Typically, a caterpillar will split and shed its skin four or five times before entering into its third stage of development—the pupa stage.
This most fascinating caterpillar molt begins when the full-grown larva attaches itself to a surface with a silken lifeline. In an aerial act that would amaze most circus performers, the caterpillar sheds its outer skin to reveal a pupal shell beneath. All the furious eating comes to a halt. The pupa, or chrysalis, may now look inactive or even dead, but inside an incredible transformation is taking place that will change the larva into a beautiful butterfly.
Hormones cause most of the larval organs to dissolve, and the resulting fluids and materials rearrange to form the adult inside the pupa.
Warm temperatures, adequate length of daylight, and moisture signal the developed butterfly inside that the time is right to emerge. The chrysalis splits open as the winged beauty struggles to get free, taking anywhere from 90 seconds to 5 minutes. The newly hatched butterfly hardly looks fit to make its debut. Its cramped quarters have left its wings wet and crumpled. So, clinging where it has emerged, it pumps body fluids in the veins of the wings, which expand and begin to harden. Its life may span from three days up to eight months or even a year.
In Search of Butterflies
Should you care to journey to the arid southwestern deserts of the United States, you might be delighted to spot the Felders’ orange-tip (Anthocharis cethura). How does it cope with such an unfriendly climate? It flies only during the early spring months in years when enough rainfall has produced its desired food plants. The patient pupae may delay hatching up to five or six years, waiting for the right amount of moisture.
These deserts also host another butterfly of distinction: the giant skipper (Megathymus coloradensis). This large butterfly has a chunky body and comparatively small triangular wings that make it look as if flight would be awkward. Don’t be fooled—these jets of the insect world may be the fastest butterflies on earth, with speeds of 60 miles per hour [96 km/hr].
Traveling to the cold windswept summits of the California Sierra Nevadas, we would find the hardy ivallda arctic (Oeneis ivallda). It withstands winters lasting nine to ten months at elevations of 10,000-14,000 feet [3,000-4,000 m]. How does it survive? Scientists believe that the caterpillar is able to produce its own “antifreeze.”
Perhaps you would enjoy observing the large blue (Maculinea arion) of Europe and its partnership with the ants. After several molts, it is found by certain kinds of ants, which stroke a “honey gland” on the back of the caterpillar, yielding a sweet fluid. The ants adopt the caterpillar, carrying it back to their nest, where they give it ant larvae to eat in exchange for the sweet “honeydew.” Eventually, the caterpillar enters the pupa stage, emerging as a butterfly three weeks later.
Within the butterfly world we find tremendous variety in size, wing shape, color, and patterns. In some cases, though, the opposite is true. Some species so resemble each other that only experts can accurately identify them. Several poisonous kinds afford protection to their nonpoisonous look-alikes, as wary birds and other predators have learned not to make a meal of them. The smallest known butterfly specimen, pygmy blue (Brephidium exilis) of North America, is less than one half inch [1 cm] in wingspan. The largest is the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae) of the South Pacific, which can have a wingspread of 11 inches [28 cm].
About 10,000 to 20,000 different species of butterflies adorn the surface of this planet. They are to be found braving the harsh desert heat of North Africa; scaling the dizzying heights of the Himalayas to altitudes of 20,000 feet [6,000 m]; living more than 100 feet [30 m] below sea level in the Middle East and Death Valley, California; playing about the tropical rain forests of South America, Africa, and Asia; patrolling the turbulent Atlantic seacoasts; and even surviving in the frigid tundra above the Arctic Circle.
In a flash of color, the butterfly we were watching at the outset is once again airborne, bound for parts unknown. And along with our little friend, we feel richer for having had a glimpse of one of Jehovah’s many beautiful creations.