Sunday, October 9, 2011

Cannibals and Rapists among butterflies; Excerpts from Winged Obsession pt. 1.

Hey all,

so I recently got my hands on this pretty amazing book, it's titled Winged Obsession and it details the efforts of Ed Newcomer from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service department to bring down Yoshi Kojima, one of the world's most well-known and notorious of butterfly smugglers. A brilliant work of fiction based on some, very true events, Winged Obsession is definitely a must-read for all lepidopterists and butterfly enthusiasts out there, if only because we're so often a flighty lot, and it takes something almost entirely grounded in the subject of butterflies to sustain our interest over so long periods of time. Indeed, if I may be so bold as to assume that the word of an amateur lepidopterist (still green in his years with the identification of some species) meant anything, I would definitely recommend it. Personal rating: 10/10.

The real life of butterflies isn't all it's cracked up to be. They're beset by creepy predators, eaten by birds, chased by humans, squashed on windshields of cars and caught in their grilles. Only 2 percent of the eggs laid by a female butterfly will ever make it to adulthood. Perhaps because of this, many of them also have a dark side, along with rap sheets that can seem unbelievable. From the moment of birth butterflies display an aggressive side. Survival of the fittest is the motto of many of these young cannibals as comma-sized caterpillars munch away on their siblings. They furiously chew in the hope that they'll turn into pupae before they themselves are eaten by birds. 

If the youngsters make it that far, a worse fate possibly awaits them - the dreaded Ichneumon wasp. The wasp perches on the back of the defenseless caterpillar and lays its eggs beneath the skin. Their offspring eventually hatch and feast on their host from within. In a nightmarish scenario, newborn wasps, rather than a beautiful butterfly, ultimately emerge from the chrysalis.

Perhaps strangest of all are butterfly-mating rituals. We tend to romanticize these delicate creatures, but some of them can be downright cruel, participating in an act that's nothing less than cradle rape. There are butterfly species so eager to find mates that they locate a female pupa and perch on it, sometimes four males at a time. Then they wait until the female emerges. That's when she's at her most susceptible. Her wings have yet to open yet, and she's still limp. Facing abdomen to abdomen, the first male's claspers spring from his sides, exposing his penis. the claspers then grab hold of the female and pry open her genitalia. Once he's finished mating, the rest of the males take their turn. The last male to mount is the one that fertilizes her eggs. He claims his prize by depositing a sperm plug, the butterflu equivalent of a chastity belt. The female is then unable to mate with anyone else. She may even be injured during the rape and die. 

The Heliconius butterfly of Central and South America elegantly sports long, narrow black wings and dramatic yellow zebra-like stripes. The species is intelligent, with a brain twice the normal size of other butterflies. Large groups of them roost together on tree limbs at night. There they make an eerie cracking sound by wriggling their bodies to scare away predators - not that they'd have any problem. Their wings are loaded with cyanide. Some Heliconius males take the act of rape to the ultimate extreme. They probe into the pupae of a different butterfly species altogether and fertilize the female before she's even had the chance to emerge. that always ends as a death sentence for the female... 

Newcomer knew relatively little about butterflies, but he was beginning to understand more about Kojima. He had already guessed there was a dark side to the man. He had yet to discover, that he was in for the ride of his life. 

Queen Alexandra's Birdwing (Ornithoptera Alexandrae) the world's largest (and presumably rarest) butterfly. Undercover Agent Ed Newcomer (identity concealed) displays a set of Queen Alexandra's butterflies seized as evidence in the Hisayoshi Kojima case.

work citedSpeart, J. (2011), "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" in Winged Obsession, HarperCollins; New York. pp. 70-72.

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