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The three tricks that keeps some butterflies alive

The three tricks that keeps some butterflies alive
-Text and Photos by  J. Devaprakash 

 Being alive is most important than anything else in the world. For any living thing, either human or animal or bird or insect,  life is supreme.  In the food web woven by Mother Nature to have a balanced ecosystem, some species prey on other species, generally the stronger eats the weaker. As a natural process, however, some species fight with others to protect themselves, some flee from the enemies, some hide from predation, some lose their life. But, every single species in this world strives for survival, and the struggle continues till the last moment. Butterflies are no different from them. Despite short life, butterflies, too, make every possible attempt to be alive. Yet a few butterflies have some special privilege, bestowed by nature, to protect themselves from predation. They perform either of three tricks to save their life – camouflage, discharge of smelly liquid and mimicry.

The perfect blend. A Blue Oakleaf, with an appearance of a dry-leaf, hangs upright and blends completely with the ambiance

The Leaf-like Life
This magical behaviour, called ‘Camouflage’, is one of the techniques that help butterflies and other living things to escape from predation. The Blue Oakleaf butterfly is one of the butterflies which can hide itself with the surrounding. When its wings are closed, it gets an appearance of a typical dry leaf. What is remarkable is even its veins formation and colour are similar to that of a leaf. An interesting thing is that this butterfly uses this feature cleverly; it chooses an apt ambiance which absolutely matches with its appearance. That is, when it is chased by a predator, it perches on a place where at least few dry leaves matching to its appearance. By doing this, it completely blends with the surrounding and the enemy who chased becomes bewildered and leaves the place empty handed. When it opens the wings, in contrast to the outer wings, the Blue Oakleaf exhibits a brilliant colour pattern on the inner side. It is an awe-inspiring creature extraordinarily created by the nature. The leaf-like life!

The Blue Magic. When its wings are opened, the Blue Oakleaf becomes conspicuous

Besides camouflage, there are two more interesting magics which some butterflies do to save their own lives. Discharge of smelly liquid and the imitation are the two techniques used by some butterflies to keep their predators at bay.

The Weapon Within
The Tiger or Monarch butterflies are known for their daringness which drives away its predators. During threat situation, to save its own life the Tiger butterflies use the self-protection mechanism. These butterflies ooze unpalatable liquid which causes the enemy nausea and as a result they flee from the scene. The liquid, made-up of alkaloids, is basically collected from the milkweed plants, and the accumulation of the alkaloids starts right from the larval stage of butterfly. By nature the eggs of Tiger butterflies are laid on the milkweed plants that have alkaloids on which the larva feeds. As the larva grows, it stocks alkaloids within and once it metamorphoses as a butterfly the tissues of the adult contains the traces of alkaloids. And, when attacked, these alkaloids are oozed out by the butterfly. The weapon within!

The Brave. A Plain Tiger, one of the butterflies that has alkaloids, rests fearlessly

The Mimickers
Some butterflies which neither has camouflage skill nor has alkaloid weapon, at least has  smartness to save their life from enemies. They just do one thing - mimic the butterflies which have alkaloids! By this trick, the predators which know much about the toxic butterflies do not attack the mimics thinking these as real fighters. Whereas,  they actually do not have any toxic liquid within them. For instances, the female Great Eggfly mimics the Common Crow and the female Danaid Eggfly mimics the Plain Tiger. It is not just the appearance the mimics copy from the host, sometimes they imitate the flight style and other habits. By playing this trick, they roam around fearlessly. The Mimickers!

The Original. A Common Crow that has alkaloids within them

The Mimic. A female Great Eggfly which has appearance similar to the Common Crow

Not all the butterflies have these amazing skills, only a handful of butterflies have been imparted, by Mother Nature, to camouflage or to spray toxins or to mimic. And, it is not just the butterflies that can perform these three magics to escape from predation, some insects and animals do this, too. The tricks that save the life!

Note: All these photos were clicked in the environs of  Indian nuclear power plant sites. And the study was a part of Environment Stewardship Programme of NPCIL.

The author is Manager (Corporate Communication) at Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited(NPCIL). 
He is also a nature watcher and amateur wildlife photographer. He authored a coffee-table book on the butterflies of Indian Nuclear Power Plants and co-authored a book on the birds of Indian NPPs. He has been writing articles on wildlife.

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