Birth of the blue morphos

SUMMARY: Today’s “Museum Monday” features a visit to the Natural History Museum’s new Sensational Butterflies exhibition, where we watch a time-lapse video of their blue morpho butterflies emerging from chrysalises

Adult peleides blue morpho, Morpho peleides, wings open. (Also known as the common morpho, or as The Emperor.) Credit: Thomas Bresson (CC BY 3.0)

Adult peleides blue morpho, Morpho peleides, wings open. (Also known as the common morpho, or as The Emperor.) Credit: Thomas Bresson (CC BY 3.0)

The Natural History Museum’s filmmakers recently captured a time-lapse video of the first of their blue morpho butterflies emerging from their chrysalises. These butterflies are now on view in their “Sensational Butterflies” exhibition.

Several species of butterflies are commonly known as “blue morphos” so the specific (species) name often precedes the common name: the Sensational Butterflies exhibition’s blue morphos are peleides blue morphos, Morpho peleides.

Blue morpho butterflies are native to Mexico, Central American and the northern regions of South America. In the wild, as they fly through the thick foliage, their wings provide brief flashes of brilliant blue that are visible from a long distance. This helps them find mates and defend their territories.

The blue morpho lives for only 115 days — and most of their lifetime is spent on “the Three Fs”: feeding, flying and … reproduction. As fuzzy caterpillars, blue morphos are nocturnal and herbivorous; munching their way through the leaves from many tropical plant species by night — or they can be cannibals; munching their way through their siblings!

Adult blue morphos lack chewing mouthparts, but instead, they have a long thin hollow tongue, known as a proboscis, that they use as a drinking straw to suck up juices of fermenting fruits, tree sap, and fluids of decomposing animals, fungi, and wet mud. Blue morphos find their food by tasting the air with their club-tipped antennae, and they also can taste with their legs and feet.

The most spectacular feature of butterflies are their wings — all butterflies have four wings — two forewings and two hindwings. Most butterflies’ wings are covered with microscopic scales that provide the colours and patterns — one colour per scale.

Credit: Greg Hume (CC BY-SA 3.0). Adult peleides blue morpho, Morpho peleides, wings closed (Krohn Conservatory in Cincinnati, Ohio).

Credit: Greg Hume (CC BY-SA 3.0). Adult peleides blue morpho, Morpho peleides, wings closed (Krohn Conservatory in Cincinnati, Ohio).

Blue morphos are amongst the largest butterflies in the world, with a wingspan that ranges from 7.5–20 cm (3.0–7.9 inches). The underside of their wings are pigmented with black, brown, tan, orange and white, and with a number of eyespots (ocelli). This colouring provides cryptic camouflage to protect them from sharp-eyed predators, especially at night when the adults roost in the foliage to sleep.

The uppersides of the blue morpho’s wings are vivid metallic blue, edged with black. The blue colouring is not supplied by pigments, but by iridescence, where the scales are arranged in a tetrahedral (diamond) pattern across the wing surface, and where individual scales are comprised of several layers, or lamellae, that reflect incident light repeatedly from each successive layer. This reflected light creates interference that produces wavelengths in the green-blue-violet range (450-550 nm), depending upon the angle at which the wings are viewed (doi:10.1098/rspb.1999.0794).

Blue morphos are threatened by deforestation and by habitat fragmentation. Thanks to their spectacular wings, humans also directly threaten blue morphos by hunting them down for display. But morphos and the other butterflies used in butterfly exhibits throughout the world are raised commercially by indigenous peoples, which gives them an economic incentive to protect their rainforests.

It takes a butterfly or moth only a couple minutes to emerge from its chrysalis, a few more minutes to unfurl its wings by filling them with body fluids, and then several hours for its wings to dry and harden so it can then fly. In today’s “Museum Monday” time-lapse video, we watch two hours of blue morpho emergence distilled down to a mere 47 seconds.

The Natural History Museum’s Sensational Butterflies exhibition is now open and runs through 13 September. You can find the Natural History Museum on twitter @NHM_London

Additional reading:

Vukusic P., C. R. Lawrence & R. J. Wootton (1999). Quantified interference and diffraction in single Morpho butterfly scales, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 266 (1427) 1403-1411. doi:10.1098/rspb.1999.0794 [₤]

Read more about a similar phenomenon to blue morpho wing colouring; the physics of blue colouring and iridescence in bird feathers.

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This piece has been edited and reformatted from the original.

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Grrlscientist can be found on on her eponymous Guardian blog, and she’s quite active on twitter: @GrrlScientist. She sometimes lurks on social media; facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Pinterest.

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About GrrlScientist

grrlscientist is the pseudonym of an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who writes about evolution, ethology, and ecology, especially in birds. After earning a degree in microbiology (thesis focus: virology) and working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she earned her PhD in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied the molecular correlates of testosterone and behaviour in white-crowned sparrows. She then worked a Chapman Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she studied the speciation and distribution of lories and other parrots throughout the South Pacific Islands. A discarded scientist, she returned to her roots: writing. Formerly hosted by The Guardian (UK), she now writes about science for Forbes and for the non-profit think tank, the Evolution Institute and she writes podcasts for BirdNote Radio. An avid lifelong birder and aviculturist, she lives with a flock of songbirds and parrots somewhere in Germany.
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