About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Thursday, 18 August 2022

Butterflies are Suckers!

Well, so am I actually, where butterflies and moths are concerned, though I think I came to them a bit late in life to be any good at learning to identify them with any ease. I can go to a new country and readily recognise new birds from having studied them in the field guides, but even in my own back yard I have trouble fixing in my mind and my eyes the necessary cues and patterns and other essential skills and information for identifying the butterflies. It's very frustrating. I think the issue is that I've been watching and identifying birds for most of my life, and we learn (and perhaps more importantly, we learn how to learn) so much more easily when we're young. All of which of course has nothing to do with the actual topic of today's post!

We're well aware of the ability of most moths and butterflies to suck - or more accurately and elegantly, to extract nectar from a flower's nectary gland, and thus perform a crucial pollinating role for many flowering plants. However it's not so easy to see how they manage it. The essential sucking tool for a butterfly is a proboscis, rather like a flexible coiled drinking straw with a sensory apparatus at the end. Here are a couple coiled up out of the way.
Male Cairns Birdwing Ornithoptera euphorion Lake Barrine, North Queensland.
Borneo Birdwing Troides andromache, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.
We don't get much idea of the proboscis from those, but here are couple partially uncoiled and ready for use.
Yellow Admiral, Vanessa itea, National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
Tanna Longtail Urbanus tanna* (Family Hesperiidae), Waqanki Lodge, northern Peru.
Many tropical American lodges plant verbena as being an excellent butterfly/moth attractor.
[* in this and the following captions mean that my friend and Australian butterfly guru Suzi Bond has
identified this for me, but notes that while she is pretty confident of the genus, the species may
not always be exactly right. It's well out of her familiar area and I'm very grateful for the work
she's done on this.]
So what is this elegant and sophisticated structure, the proboscis? (I think it's fair to say that our name for it is less elegant than the structure itself!) It comprises two trough-like structures called galeae; in other insects, and presumably the ancestral butterfly, these are small cup-like structures attached to the floor of the mouth. By a remarkable process, the butterfly/moth's two galeae begin extending and coiling as soon as the adult emerges from the pupa, aligning themselves to form a single tube. When this happens a temporary liquid glue holds them in place until fringing structures zip them permanently together. Inside is fibrous material like blotting paper; liquid is drawn up by a mixture of passive capillary action and active muscular pumping, using a 'bellows' in the butterfly's head. When required the proboscis unfurls and can be very delicately applied. Both the following images of the proboscis in action feature Australian Painted Ladies Vanessa kershawi at the National Botanic Gardens in Canberra.
On an Istotoma sp., Family Campanulaceae

On a paper daisy, Xerochrysum sp. Here the butterfly has the choice of numerous tiny flowers,
or florets, which each provide a tiny droplet of nectar. The reward from each floret is minute, but it
can reach many florets without having to move. This nectar is a simple sugar solution,
which provides a butterfly (or other animal) with an energy source, a valuable commodity indeed.
Here are a few more pictures, just because you can't really have too many photos of butterflies on flowers, can you? The Costa Rican ones I can't put a name to, and if you can I'd be glad to hear from you - even a family would be helpful.
Tiger Moth Amata sp. on eucalypt flowers, National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
(Plus a bonus Soldier Beetle Chauliognathus lugubris, which is probably also just interested in
the flowers here. They are omnivorous but I'd expect the moth to be too big a mouthful for it.)
Short-tailed Flasher Astraptes brevicauda* (Family Hesperiidae) on verbena flowers,
Cerro Lodge, Costa Rica. Note the earlier comment about planting verbena in lodge gardens.
Dorantes Longtail Urbanus dorantes (Family Hesperiidae) at Puerto Morales
on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.
Cabbage White Pieris rapae on Kunzea ambigua, Ulladulla Heathland Reserve
NSW south coast. This is an abundant introduced species, but it's the caterpillars which
fancy cabbage leaves (and other members of the family Brassicaceae); the adults
are happy to take nectar from native shrubs such as these.
Small Alpine Xenica Oreixenica latialis on Prostanthera cuneata,
Kosciuszko National Park, NSW.
Neotropic Glass-wing Butterfly Methona confusa, Milpe Reserve, Ecuador.
Presumably the transparent wings help with camouflage against their background,
though it's not clear what the role of the distinctive black stripes is in that case.

Butterflies as a group evolved at least 190 million years ago, but the proboscis seems not to have appeared until somewhere between 100-145 million years ago. The strong implication of this is that it coincided with the development and dramatic spread of flowering plants at this time. On the other hand it could as validly be proposed that the butterfly proboscis developed to take up water or sap, and the subsequent adaptation to nectar actually assisted the dominance of flowering plants; either way both have flourished together.

Either way too, a familiar pattern has emerged, of a structure arising for one purpose and later becoming harnessed for other purposes. Butterflies regularly use this wonderful structure for taking up other liquids - from protein of dead animals and nutrient from animal droppings to soft fruit and water from mud. Once you get your eye in it's surprisingly easy to see butterflies and moths drinking water from mud, sand or other wet soil, or even from other materials. By clicking on the pics to enlarge them, you should be able to see the proboscises at work in most of them.
Broad-banded Swallowtails Heraclides astyalus Iguazu Falls Argentina.
Red Flashers Panacea prola helpfully showing their top and bottom views, Peruvian Amazon.
On the riverbank, Manu Reserve, Peru. At the back an admiral or mapwing, Hypnartia sp.*;
the other two are Altinote sp.
Mud-sippers, Yasuní National Park, Ecuador.
In the foreground is a Dido Longwing Philaethria dido and behind it a
Mimic Skipper Cabirus procas*.
Sipping the roadside, northern Peruvian Andes.
Common Small Lemon Eurema deva Iguazu Falls Argentina.
Green-banded Urania Urania leilus on the riverbank mud, Yasuní National Park, Ecudaor.
And they do it in Australia too!
Male Orchard Swallowtail Papilio aegeus sipping from wet soil, Rosedale, south coast NSW.
Sometimes large numbers will gather to drink in this way, providing a wonderful spectacle.
Drinking from mud, Budongo Forest, Uganda.
(The following comment might apply here too.)
Suzi thinks the large ones with worn wings are an Acraea sp., with some smaller ones
of the same genus (the brownish ones), possibly Acraea circeis or peneleos.
She thinks the black-spotted white ones are Forest Caper Whites Belenois theora.
These are probably sulphurs Phoebis sp. drinking from wet sand, Manu River, Amazonian Peru.
Suzi Bond suggests that these and the ones in the following couple of pics are actually concentrating on
a patch of urine. There are large mammals here, including Tapirs, Jaguars and Capybaras.
A wonderful gathering (don't overlook the numerous inconspicuous brown
Waiter Daggerwings Marpesia zerynthia*) along the Manu River again.
This trip was my first into the Amazon basin, and it was truly memorable.
Grass Yellows Eurema sp., from the same boat trip.
Unfortunately I can't remember or recognise what these two Harmonia Tigers Tithorea harmonia*
were sipping on at the Tambopata Research Station in southern Peru, but it looks like a wet patch
on either cloth or bark.
Hydaspes 88 Callicore hydaspes Iguaçu Falls Brazil, sipping on the hand rail, probably for
the salt from numerous visitors' hands. This must be one of the oddest names among
very many very odd butterfly names. The Hydaspes is just for the species name (though apart from being a river in India, its origin is a mystery to me),but the 88 in the group name refers to the wing pattern, which in some species (but not this one) does resemble the number 88...
There's also the question of the two different spellings of the falls. It's Iguaçu
in Brazil (ie in Portuguese) and the Spanish Iguazu on the Argentinian side.
And here's another one at the falls getting its sweat-salt from the source.
I think this might be the only time a photo of me has appeared in the blog.
But other liquids, containing nutrients, are also taken up via the proboscis - and as suggested earlier, perhaps butterflies were doing this even before flowers came along.
Female Morpho Butterfly Morpho sp. sucking up watermelon juice in a butterfly house
at Sacha Lodge in Ecuadorian Amazonia. The males are brilliant blue above.
And then there are other foods not normally associated with butterflies!
Butterflies and flies above on Civet droppings, Budongo Forest, Uganda.
The one on the right is a False Chief Pseudacraea lucretia (yet again, butterfly names
are truly weird and wonderful - up there with hummingbirds - but this one is a reference
to toxic species that it mimics) and the pale one at the back is a glider
Cymothoe sp.
(possibly C. caenis). The orange one is an Acraea sp., perhaps A. orina.
[This time my informant is my 'other' butterfly guru, Steve Holliday - thanks Steve!]

Another cluster of butterflies at the same site. I was told that Civet droppings
are especially attractive to them, but if so I'm not sure of the reason. Presumably
there is more protein in a carnivore dropping than a herbivore's and this is probably the
commonest medium-large carnivore in the forest. Any other suggestions welcomed!
This time most of them are Acrea sp. (or maybe Acrea spp.), a very large and
widespread African genus. (Thanks again Steve.)
Butterfly on cow pat, Pantanal, in south-western Brazil.
Suzi assures me - with a straight face as far as I can tell - that this is
a Confusing Sister Adelpha iphicleola!!
Finally I should acknowledge that a couple of other insect groups have proboscises for much the same reason, but they developed quite separately, from different mouth parts. True bugs (ie Hemipterans, not the catch-all way we sometimes use 'bug' to refer to any creepy-crawly animal) have one formed from the chewing mouth parts - the maxillae and mandibles - extended into a piercing structure and sheathed by the labium, the floor of the mouth. This can be used for piercing either plant tissue or animals. 
Sap-sucking hemipteran, Kata Tjuta NP, Northern Territory.
Assassin Bug (very small!) with prey (even smaller!!), Jervis Bay, south coast NSW.
In flies which have a proboscis it is comprised of the labium, with the maxillae and mandibles providing the stabbing function where required. (I am endlessly intrigued by the different ways in which nature comes up with solutions to the same problem.) Many flies are nectar feeders and flower pollinators. Rather than suck, many flies with proboscises have a sort of sponge on the end to mop up the liquid (thanks Susan).
Bristle Fly (Family Tachinidae) Canberra.
Bee Fly Comptosia apicalis on paper daisy Xerochrysum sp. in our Canberra yard.
Fly (Family Acroceridae) on Xerochrysum paper daisy, National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
Other flies, including mosquitoes, favour protein over sugar hits.
March Fly (Family Tabanidae) about to pierce my trouser leg in Kosciuszko NP,
in the hope of obtaining some of my nutritious blood.
You might think that weevils with their long snouts might be in the proboscis club too, but in fact their rostrum contains the chewing mouth parts common to most other beetles.
 Rhinotia sp. (suturalis or brunnea) Bluetts Block, Canberra.
The fact is that butterflies and moths own most of the proboscises in the insect world and I've had a lot of fun poking my own proboscis into their business. I hope you've enjoyed this post too.

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