Sunday, March 4, 2012

I'm a Lepidopterist Writer!!!

Hey ya'll

I am so excited because I can finally proclaim that I am a lepidopterist writer, and not just the kin that publishes butterfly and creepy-crawly related articles on my blog either, for today the butterfly-article that I wrote for the university publication MONGA (The Monash Gazette) was finally put to print!!! I wrote the article sometime in the middle of 2011, at a time when I could ill-afford such projects as I was coming into the height of my thesis, and it was targeted primarily towards a highly industrialized audience, students who, though they would most certainly know what a butterfly is, may not actually know what a butterfly REALLY is. Indeed it has always been my hope (which, if you refer to my introductory post, is one of the reasons why I started this blog) to provide readers with a brief glance into the magnificent world of lepidopterology (the study of butterflies and moths) and perhaps in doing so, invoke some deep-seated and dormant appreciation for nature and insects (some of nature's most overlooked of residents) and the environment. Below are the colored scans of the individual pages of the article as well as as re-post of the article itself in an act of shameless self-promotion.

Confessions of a Lepidopterist: The Secret World of Butterflies

The study of butterflies and moths is known as lepidopterology, the person who partakes in such activities (such as myself); a lepidopterist, and before you get lost in a bunch of big words, the term Lepidoptera - which is used as an umbrella category for all butterflies and moths - is really just a compound of two ancient greek words; lepi (scale) and pteron (wing) which basically refers to the ways in which the wings of butterflies and moths are colored. Now, anone who has ever tried to catch a butterfly or moth will know that when they touched the wings of these insects, a fine "dust" is left behind on their fingers. This "dust" is in fact millions of minute scales which overlap one another all over the insect's wings thus giving them the beautiful coloration and patterns of which the species is famous for. 

In actual fact, wing scales serve more than just beautification purposes. Besides functioning as biological billboards of sorts, signalling their sex and species to other Lepidoptera, wing scales also serve as the defense mechanism for many butterflies and moths - some of which are arranged to create cryptic colorations and patterns which enable them to blend in succesfully with their surroundings, others which are hair-like and loosely attached, enable the insect to make a quick slip or getaway when grasped in a predator's claws or beak. Some species of butterflies have even opted for the more unconventional scale-less wings. The glasswing butterflies of South America, for example, have wings so transparent that they appear almost invisible while fluttering amongst the leaves and debris of the forest floor. Consequently, it is perhaps arguable that it is this most prominent aspect of the insect which has transformed into the sort of poster image that comes to mind when thinking of insect or nature study.

On a more personal note, my own interest in butterflies extends far beyond that of specimen collecting and spreading, and although some of my current goals include butterfly rehabilitation in urban habitats, and the accumulation of a specimen field guide to the kinds of butterflies which can be found, or introduced successfully into certain habitats, my obsession with the world of Lepidoptera began from quite small and humble beginnings. Quite literally, a glass jar. Keeping butterflies and moths is something that is fascinating for most children and adults alike and this is probably in part due to the butterfly's interesting life-cycle. All butterflies go through a process called metamorphosis whereby the adult creature resembles nothing of its larval past.

Life Cycle 

All butterflies start out their lives as eggs. These eggs, which are watertight and cemented onto leaves by the female butterfly, provide the developing larva with protection from the elements. A few days later, ranging anywhere between 2 or 3 (though sometimes longer!), the caterpillar emerges. At this stage in its life, the caterpillar is usually no bigger than a "," on a page, but though it is small in stature, its appetite is monstrous and the caterpillar wastes no time in devouring its first meal; its very own egg-shell. Caterpillars feed mainly on plant matter, leaves, flowers, fruits, although there are some that have more exotic appetites ranging from fabric, to other caterpillars!!! And in just a matter of hours, a caterpillar can eat many times its weight in leaves. 

As the caterpillars eat, they too begin to increase in size and weight and they do this through a process called ecdysis where the old skin is molted to be replaced by the new; sort of like most snakes and reptiles, if you think about it. They will do this for about five times and the stage between each molt is called an instar whereby the appearance of the larva between one instar and another may vary significantly. It is unsurprising, therefore, that at this stage of their lives, butterflies and moths are often regarded as pests and they can have serious impact on agricultural produce. Eventually though, the caterpillar will eat until it cannot grow larger anymore and by now it is at least a couple thousand times its size from when it first hatched from the egg. It must now go through its sixth, and final molt, the in-between stage from caterpillar to butterfly. 

Contrary to popular belief, the chrysalis, or pupa, is not just a shell within which the developing insect "sleeps". Rather, the chrysalis is the insect itself in a dormant state as its cells beneath the tough other skin begin to break down into a biological soup and reshape themselves into the creature it will soon be. The chrysalids of butterflies and moths come in a variety of shapes, colors and sizes. Many chrysalids are cryptic and are designed to mimic pieces of plant debris like dried up leaves or broken twigs so as to avoid detection of birds and parasitic wasps. Some, however, develop brilliant golden or iridescent hues (possibly to reflect light, causing vision impairment in predators). The larva of many butterflies will hang their chrysalids in places that are hard to spot, under leaves for example, or close to tree bark. The larvae of moths on the other hand, have devised more creative strategies for protection. Most moth larvae spin protective silken cocoons over their chrysalids, while some have even taken to burying themselves under ground. All in all, the chrysalis stage of butterflies and moths are the hardest to spot in the wild, making collecting of the insects at this stage extremely difficult, even for some experienced entomologists.

And then comes the final and perhaps most loved stage of these insects. The chrysalis stirs, begins to darken, and then much like the previous stages in its life where the caterpillar had to shed its skin to grow into a larger one, the skin of the chrysalis splits, and quite a different creature comes out. It is the newly formed adult butterfly, and it must begin its life by first climbing up to a tall perch where it can hang upside down without being disturbed, for its wings are still crumpled and it will be several hours before they fill with hemolymph (the insect equivalent of blood), stiffen, and be ready for flight. Eventually, they reach their full size, and almost as if they have come to repay the plants which they have so mercilessly defoliated during their stay as caterpillars, they set off from flower to flower, providing their services of pollination, as they sip the sweet nectar within. 

Butterflies and Humans

It is this miraculous, almost magical transformation which first drew me to the field of lepidopterology, and  though my operation has since expanded from collecting newly hatched larvae in the wild to house in little glass jars, to several breeding cages, and an outdoor flight aviary, the jubilation and excitement I get when witnessing the life-cycle of the butterfly has never diminished over the years. Truly, butterflies are such magnificent creatures. It is hard to imagine the real extent of diversity of species of butterflies and moths there actually are and biodiversity aside (the order of Lepidoptera boasts the second most amount of species in the insect kingdom), these insects fulfill cultural as well as practical and economic roles in the environment as well. Like many other insects, butterflies play an important role in our ecosystem as pollinators. In fact, so important is the role of insects to the continuation of life on our planet that if one day all the insects were to go extinct, so too would most of the plants - many of which humans and other animals are dependent on for food. And because butterflies and moths make up the second largest amount of species in the insect kingdom, it is not surprising that they have been used as markers to determine environmental quality. 

However, due to pollution, deforestation, and drastic weather changes, butterfly populations have begun to decline. Arguably a world without butterflies is not just a world without beauty, it would be a world without life as well and it is as such which I urge anyone and everyone to do whatever they can to help preserve this world we live in and the biodiversity of other living things which call it home as well. To encourage butterflies to breed, those with gardens might wish to set up breeding and feeding grounds for this insects. All it takes is some small amount of gardening skills and some basic research on the types of butterflies in one's locale to plant the right kind of host plants for larvae, and flowering plants for the adults. In doing so, you will have obtained not just a garden filled with these beautiful insects, but also done your part to save the planet.

Remember, without butterflies and similar insects, it would take billions of dollars to replicate the pollination process so perhaps even the most economic and practical minded of us can appreciate the prudence in taking preservation methods when it comes to our planet's biodiversity. After all, why destroy what nature is already providing for free? 

*Please forgive me if there seem to be several slight differences between the transcribed version and the printed article... it seems that in their haste to publish this material that the editors have made several oversights regarding the spelling of certain words and the adjustment of certain sentences.*



Edwin said...

Congratulations. Edwin

david wofford said...

Very well written and explained there my friend! I admire your passion and knowledge about the butterfly community. I hope to read more of your writings. I agree on your point that we should not just appreciate these creatures but also we should take the step in conserving and preserving these wonderful insects.

David Wofford
To preserve them, you can click here for creating a butterfly garden and how to attract butterflies