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1882 - Author Helen Hunt Jackson arrives at Rancho Camulos; inspiration for "Ramona" novel [story]
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Back to Nature | Commentary by Paul A. Levine
| Friday, Oct 31, 2014

paullevineLife in the wild is difficult with larger animals wanting to eat smaller animals. In prehistoric days, people, too, were prey for the larger predators. We were even prey from members of our own species, but we could fight back – we could punch, kick and bite. We could hide or run away. We even developed tools (sticks, spears, bow and arrow and in more recent times, guns) to protect ourselves, and we could hire individuals who were bigger and stronger to serve as our protectors. If an animal had absolutely no ability to protect itself, it would not survive for long.

How might a butterfly protect itself? It has no teeth, so it cannot bite. Its mouth is basically a straw. It has no claws, so it cannot scratch. While it has six legs, it cannot kick or punch. It cannot use tools. Yet butterflies are highly effective in protecting themselves against their usual predators – birds, lizards, frogs and toads, and even other insects.

Indeed, every animal has ways to protect itself, or it quickly disappear from the forests and fields around us.

Female marine blue laying an egg inside the bud of a plant to hide it from predators. Photos: Paul A. Levine.

Female marine blue laying an egg inside the bud of a plant to hide it from predators. Photos: Paul A. Levine.

There are four stages to a butterfly’s life. The first stage is the ova or egg. Predators are usually attracted to movement. The egg clearly does not move. In addition, the female butterfly usually hides the egg inside the bud of a flower or on the underside of a leaf so it is not easily visible.

Brightly colored caterpillar indicating that it is poisonous to potential predators in addition to having very sharp spines.

Brightly colored caterpillar indicating that it is poisonous to potential predators in addition to having very sharp spines.

The second stage of a butterfly’s life is as a larva or caterpillar. Even though the caterpillar has a jaw with which to chew the leaves, it is not very powerful, and it does not bite. Its principal means of protection is its coloring, allowing it to hide in the plant.

Some caterpillars have spines, and some even have toxins so that being impaled by the spines can be painful. And some are brightly colored. In the insect world, bright coloration is like a warning flag, telling all predators that it is either distasteful or poisonous.

A chrysalis of a butterfly that is disguised as a dead curled shriveled up leaf.

A chrysalis of a butterfly that is disguised as a dead curled shriveled up leaf.

The third stage of a butterfly’s life is as a chrysalis, where it changes from a caterpillar into the adult butterfly. The mandibles (jaw) designed for chewing changes into a straw for sucking liquids such as nectar or rotting fruit. The short legs that allow it to grasp the twig evolve into long legs, and it grows wings allowing it to fly. While it is a chrysalis, it is stationary and often blends in with the leaves, particularly dead leaves. The irregular shape contributes to its appearance as a dead shriveled up leaf .

A monarch butterfly with bright orange coloring to serve as a warning to potential predators that it is poisonous and to stay away.

A monarch butterfly with bright orange coloring to serve as a warning to potential predators that it is poisonous and to stay away.

The adult butterfly, while flying around, is far more obvious both to us and to potential predators. It needs even more ways of protecting itself than during the first three stages of its life cycle.

The brightly colored wings, such as the orange of the monarch butterfly, are readily apparent but serve as a flag to tell potential predators to stay away because they are poisonous.

They get the poison from the plants they eat while a caterpillar; the host plant for a monarch is milkweed, which contains a toxin that the monarch can tolerate but is poisonous for other animals.

A viceroy butterfly mimics the appearance of the monarch and hence is also protected.

A viceroy butterfly mimics the appearance of the monarch and hence is also protected.

Other butterflies, such as the viceroy, which is not found in Southern California but is found in other parts of the United States, mimics the coloring of the monarch, so it protects itself by essentially wearing a costume, an appropriate method particularly at Halloween.

The multiple spots on the variable checkerspot become a distraction, making it difficult for a predator to follow it in flight.

The multiple spots on the variable checkerspot become a distraction, making it difficult for a predator to follow it in flight.

Another technique is to be brightly marked so that the predator cannot follow all the movements of multiple spots. This is particularly the case with the variable checkerspot, which comes out in the springtime.

A butterfly’s wings are similar but not identical to our hair. While the wings will not regrow if damaged, they are essentially dead. It doesn’t hurt when the barber or beautician cuts our hair. Similarly, it doesn’t hurt the butterfly if a bird takes a bite out of a wing. The butterfly can fly effectively with only 50 percent of its wing surface area as long as this is balanced on each side of the body.

A gray hairstreak sits with its head down. The eyespots on the hind wing and the very fine tails that mimic the butterfly’s antenna fool a potential predator into thinking that is the head allowing the butterfly to escape for another day.

A gray hairstreak sits with its head down. The eyespots on the hind wing and the very fine tails that mimic the butterfly’s antenna fool a potential predator into thinking that is the head allowing the butterfly to escape for another day.

Many butterflies have eyespots along the edge of the wing. Since the eye symbolizes the head of an animal, if a predator goes for the head, it has usually caught the prey. But if it goes for an eyespot, it will grab the edge of the wing, which will break off and the butterfly will get away.

Some butterflies also have fine tails that mimic antenna, also usually found on the head, and they sit on the flower with their true head facing down and the false head – fine tail and eye spots – prominently displayed, as with the gray hairstreak.

The tails on the tiger swallowtail seem like an easy handle by which to grab the butterfly but they break off allowing the butterfly to escape predation.

The tails on the tiger swallowtail seem like an easy handle by which to grab the butterfly but they break off allowing the butterfly to escape predation.

Another generally large butterfly and powerful flier also uses tails. These butterflies are called “swallowtails,” and the Western tiger swallowtail is particularly common in Santa Clarita. As it tries to escape a potential predator, the predator grabs the tail, but this section of the wing breaks off, allowing the butterfly to escape.

The California ringlet flies in an erratic pattern close to the ground and prefers to be around dried grasses. When it abruptly sets down, it is difficult to see.

The California ringlet flies in an erratic pattern close to the ground and prefers to be around dried grasses. When it abruptly sets down, it is difficult to see.

The other common mechanism is an erratic flight pattern, much like a football running back zig-zagging down the field, trying not to be caught. Combine this with protective coloration so it blends with the surroundings; it will suddenly drop down into the grasses and become almost invisible.

While the lowly butterfly cannot bite, cannot hit or punch and cannot kick, it is capable of protecting itself from its usual predators. However, the butterfly, for all of its beauty and splendor, has one major predator which is not interested in eating it for dinner but has seriously challenged its existence. That is us, with habitat destruction to make room for new housing developments, shopping malls and industrial parks.

Even on our farms and open areas such as playing fields, we use pesticides and herbicides that pose major challenges for the pretty little butterflies and all of their cousins in the insect world.

Let’s do all we can to minimize the use of pesticides and herbicides while planting native plants that will be host plants and nectar sources for the butterflies.

 

Paul A. Levine is a docent-naturalist at Placerita Canyon Nature Center and an avid butterflier.

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