Monday, November 1, 2010

The Butterfly House pt. 2 ~ Case of the Mysterious Mormon

A picture of the eggs I collected.
These were wild specimens

The bunch of caterpllars. All of
these, except one turned
into Citrus Swallowtail Butterflies

A couple of months ago an incident occured in my Butterfly House that was quite unexpected but much welcome. This happened sometime after my 7th or 8th brood of caterpillars. The lime plants were beginning to flourish and bear fruit, the flowers - though certain species needed to be replaced when they matured - were thriving and the Citrus Swallowtail butterflies more abundant than ever. It looked like the breeding waystation has finally came to effect and I cannot help but wonder if some of the butterflies I am seeing today (those that have bred in the wild, outside of my enclosures) are not the grandchildren or even great grandchildren of the butterflies which I had released earlier in the year! Which then begs to answer the question, do Citrus Swallowtails inherit within them some sort of genetic memory with which they pass on to their future generations containing within it information of breeding sites and feeding grounds and things like that. Sounds too far fetched? I think not! Monarch butterflies for example are quite known for their annual migration from the North, to the South of the Americas, a journey that will span about three generations of butterfly. The amazing part of it all is that the butterflies fly, generation to generation, through the same routes, stop at the same feeding/breeding stations and end up at the same patches of forests year after year! What this basically means is that butterflies who have never before made the long journey across the continent will, somehow, instinctively know the way. Perhaps such behaviour exists to an extent in all butterfy species? But that will be a question to be answered at a later date.

But I digress. In checking up on my chyrsalis box I noticed a few butterflies had hatched and upon closer inspection discovered that one was quite different form its "siblings". Carefully cupping the insect in my palms I brought it upstairs into my room where the cool-air from the airconditioning device left it unactive. I was eventually able to identify it as a Common Mormon butterfly (P. Polytes) and a male at that too which was surprising considering that at the time I was only breeding Citrus Swallowtail butterflies (P. Demoleus) and the larvae I had been collecting from the wild (to add new DNA to my captive genepool so that no inbreeding occurs) were all of the Citrus species. A little bit of researching answered that question. It would seem that the larvae of the Polytes species mimics - almost remarkably - the larvae of the Demoleus species and while this is not a surprising feat in itself - butterflies are masters of mimicry and often mimic leaves, twigs, other animals and even each other to protect themselves from predators - the question is, to what advantage would it be for the larvae of one species to mimic that of another? Demoleus larvae are not only non-poisonous, as a matter of fact are easily recognised and heavily parasited by various species of wasps! How could the Polytes larvae possibly benefit from such a form of mimicry... Perhaps it is some remnant of an evolutionary past, an inherited trait similar to that of the Monarch Butterflies. But surely there are some deeper workings at play here, something in the vast web of nature that has not yet been discovered and at every turn these butterflies are beginning to surprise me even more every day. so many questions left to answer... but for now, I will keep my eye out for Polytes adults breeding in the garden, perhaps I can add this butterfly (with a very beautiful female form, I might add) to my repertoire.
left, the chrysalis that would eventually hatch into Polytes, right, the regular
Citrus Swallowtail Chrysalis. *note* the Green form exists in the Citrus
breed as well. The pupa colour is dependant on the season.

A comparison of the two adult butterflies. On the left, Common Mormon (P. Polytes)
on the right, Citrus Swallowtail (P. Demoelus)

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