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Exploring the Spectacular, Colorful World of Butterflies

Nature * Bored bird-watchers are focusing their binoculars on the ephemeral insects fluttering about.

May 22, 2000|From Washington Post

Lepidopterists are changing their spots.

The popular stereotype of the collector in a pith helmet with a butterfly net is rapidly giving way to butterfly watchers, nature enthusiasts who shun the traditional practice of killing things and taking them home to look at.

Times have changed, and binoculars have gotten better. Indeed, lepidopterist Jeffrey Glassberg says the public's interest in bird-watching coincided with binoculars being made widely available for the first time. Likewise, butterfly watching has benefited from recent advances in the manufacture of close-focus binoculars, which magnify objects 6 feet away and nearer.

"Without binoculars, you can barely see them," Glassberg says. "With binoculars, they fill your whole field of vision--and look spectacular."

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There are many such parallels between the two pursuits. In fact, their interconnectedness is so great that bird- and butterfly-watching guides can often be used interchangeably. Even lepidopterists admit that butterfly watching began as a pastime for bored bird-watchers. Butterflies are most active during the hottest part of the day--late morning and afternoon--when birds are least active.

Butterfly watching as a discipline is still in its infancy.

"There was no such thing as butterflying until we started this organization," says Glassberg, who founded the North American Butterfly Assn. in 1992. The group, based in Morristown, N.J., has 4,000 members and 30 chapters nationwide.

Glassberg dismisses traditional butterfly guides as "pretty picture books or pictures of dead butterflies." But a little immodesty may be in order. His own "Butterflies Through Binoculars," published in 1993, is credited with revolutionizing the pursuit with its emphasis on observation in the field.

Because they favor many of the same things people do, butterflies inflict fewer hardships on their watchers than other similar enthusiasms. They're late risers. They come out only when the sun is shining. They congregate around flowers. What's not to like?

Plenty, it turns out. Butterflies can be maddeningly elusive. Although they can usually be found anywhere there's natural vegetation, some people think they prove the Old World truism about looking for fairies--you find them only when you aren't looking for them.

They're also famously ephemeral.

"Butterflies are like wildflowers," explains lepidopterist Denise Gibbs. "There are seasons for each species. There are things you might see in, say, early April that you won't see for the rest of the season."

An average adult butterfly life span is about four weeks, and some species only go through the life cycle once a year. Consider Mitchell's satyr, active for 10 days in late June. Period.

Butterflies and moths comprise a group of insects called Lepidoptera, a word derived from the Latin ones for "scale" and "wing." Although scaliness seems a definitively reptilian quality, the markings on butterflies are actually patterns of tiny scales. As for the common name, it is most often said to have derived from England's yellow Brimstone butterfly--an abbreviation for "butter-colored fly."

Anyone who paid attention in elementary school science class is familiar with the butterfly life cycle: Butterflies lay eggs that hatch caterpillars. Caterpillars eat voraciously, then their outer layers harden and they enter the chrysalis stage. Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar is entirely liquefied and reassembled, finally emerging as a butterfly. The adult butterfly devotes its short life to mating. Repeat.

There are 15,000 to 20,000 different butterfly species, about 700 of which can be found in North America (most of them inhabit the tropics). Like other insects, butterflies have a head, thorax, abdomen, two antennae and six legs. Unlike other insects, they have four wings covered with colored scales and a proboscis for drinking nectar and other liquids.

Some lepidopterists joke that butterflies are "solar-powered." Butterflies are coldblooded, and they can't fly if they're not warm enough, which is why they don't appear until temperatures are at least in the 50s. There are relatively few butterflies in the Pacific Northwest because of the area's rain and fog, and more in sun-baked Texas than anywhere else in the United States.

Far from being simply ornamental, butterflies display the same range of behaviors as other wildlife. "They have courting behaviors just like any other animal," she explained. "Mating behaviors, territorial behaviors . . . they'll stake off a patch and protect it."

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The more detailed an observer's knowledge of butterfly behavior, the easier the insects are to locate and identify. Hard-core experts make very fine distinctions, such as between caterpillar-chewed and beetle-chewed leaves. Sometimes noting behavioral nuances is the only way to differentiate among similar species.

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