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Rainforest Butterflies

When you are lying back, relaxing in a boat being taken to the heart of the tropics, you will no doubt be amazed by various colourful rainforest butterflies crossing from one side of the river to the other. Some of the rainforest butterflies you may see on your travels are mentioned below:

Nymphalidae

These rainforest butterflies are known as brush footed butterflies as they have only four functional legs. The first two are reduced to a small ornament under their head. An iconic genus of the Amazon Rainforest are the blue morphos (Morpho peleides, pictured above). They are a large butterfly with a wing span of up to 17 cm (6.7 inches). As with many butterflies, the top of the blue morpho’s wings are brightly colored to ward off predators and to attract and help select mates. The bottom of their wings are dull to disguise the butterfly when it settles. When flying, the contrasting dull-brown and bright-blue flash on and off giving a wonderful display of colour. Blue morpho caterpillars mainly feed on plants in the pea family and the adults can be seen on rotting fruit or feeding from the fluid of dead animals or fungi. You can find blue morphos in tropical forests of Central and South America.

Swallowtails (Papilionidae)

The most attractive rainforest butterflies are in the family Papilionidae. In this group you will find the swallowtails and birdwings. They are usually large butterflies with ornamental tails (as in the photo above of a Southeast Asian species). The family includes one of the world’s most attractive butterflies, a similar looking species to the blue morpho named the Ulysses butterfly (Papilio ulysses). This butterfly is another large species, with a wingspan of about 14 cm (5.5 inches), and is found in the Australian and New Guinea rainforest. Again like the blue morphos, the top of the (usually male’s) wings are covered with bright blue scales making it a very attractive species. The underside of the wings are also dull to help with camouflage when at rest. A good place to see this species is the Daintree National Park in the Australian Wet Tropics. You will see the Ulysses butterfly as a symbol used by many Queensland tourism agencies.

Birdwings (Papilionidae)

Green Birdwing
Photo by Thomas on Flickr

Australia’s largest butterfly, with a wingspan of 13 cm (5 inches), the green birdwing (Ornithoptera priamus) has an attractive electric blue or green sheen over its enormous wings. The green birdwings are found in the Australian Wet Tropics and the rainforests of New Guinea. You may also see the Cairns birdwing (Ornithoptera priamus ssp. euphorion), which is a similar, large, and attractive sub species found in the Wet Tropics. All of the Australian rainforest species can be found in the Daintree National Park. If you are lucky enough to venture to the New Guinean rainforest, you may see the largest butterfly in the world, Queen Alexandra’s birdwing (Ornithpotera alexandrae) with a wingspan of 28 cm (11 inches). This species was first recorded when mistaken for a large bird and was shot down on a New Guinea expedition.

Mimicry

Heliconia

Many tropical butterflies have very attractive vivid colours in interesting symmetrical patterns. In the same way as some rainforest frogs, this it often to let predators know the butterfly is poisonous. Animals eventually learn to avoid these colours and patterns as the butterflies are distasteful. But among the many poisonous looking species there is the occasional tasty species, which cleverly look like the poisonous butterflies. These trickster butterflies deceive predators into thinking they are poisonous, creating a very difficult job for scientists who wish to classify different types.

By the very nature of the mimicry, trickster butterflies (known as Batesian mimics) are less common than their poisonous counterparts in order to keep up the masquerade. Adding to the confusion, different poisonous, and so distasteful, species look similar so predators only have to learn a few different patterns (known as Mullerian mimicry). A well studied example are the distasteful Heliconius butterflies of the neotropics (pictured above). One species may have many different appearances as each variation mimics a different distasteful butterfly living in a different place. It is as if the butterflies are working together across evolutionary time for the greater butterfly good.

Some butterflies use the most common rainforest insect – ants – to protect their caterpillars from predation. The caterpillar of some species can release a pheromone to convince the ants that it is one of them. The caterpillar mimics the ants’ own larvae, living inside the nest where it’s looked after by hundreds of workers before emerging from the nest as an adult.

Despite the reasons for their beauty, all these rainforest butterflies create a truly remarkable display of colour as they fly majestically across rivers and atop the canopy in the world’s tropics. Their beauty can also be a curse however, as enthusiasts ironically endanger some butterfly species by removing them from the gene pool for collections.

Visit The Amazon

The butterflies of the Amazon Rainforest are astonishing and a visit to the largest container of wildlife in the world is highly recommended. To see the butterflies witnessed by Humboldt, Bates, and Darwin is sure to bring a smile to the face of any butterfly enthusiast. Place yourself in the shoes of Henry Walter Bates as he developed his theory of mimicry by watching the famed Heliconius butterflies and the giant blue morphos.

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