Holey Wings and a Holy Grail

Science has its rewards and punishments

Morpho polyphemus luna male, Veracruz, Mexico: Such “white morpho" butterflies belong to a group of large tropical butterflies that typically have iridescent blue wings.

©2007 Kim Garwood

Although a staunch conservationist, Theodore Roosevelt was an ardent big game hunter who often secured specimens for personal trophies and museum displays. By contrast, his friend John Burroughs, the nature essayist, was turned off by natural history museums:

There lie the birds and animals stark and stiff, or else, what is worse, [they] stand up in ghastly mockery of life, and the people pass along and gaze at them through glass with the same cold and unprofitable curiosity that they gaze upon the face of their dead neighbor in his coffin.

Nevertheless, museums provide the public with a route to nature, and museum specimens have taught us much of what we know about anatomy, taxonomy, and evolution. As a career entomologist passionate about butterflies, I have engaged in my personal share of collecting specimens, that is, the killing of those gossamer-winged beauties. A long-handled, baggy net—so often depicted in cartoon caricatures of entomologists—has been my pri­mary tool. On occasion I have even resorted to collecting butterflies with a shotgun. The following was my first such experience, half a century ago.
In 1962, Robert F. Andrle, a fellow graduate student at Louisiana State University, received a research grant for a biogeographical study (with a concentration on birds) of the Sierra de los Tuxtlas (“Los Tux­tlas”). The venue was an isolated, poorly known volcanic range in southeastern Veracruz, Mexico. My colleague was looking for a field companion, and so, as a new gradu­ate student who was interested in tropical butterflies, I jumped at the opportunity to conduct a survey of the butterflies of the region.

The Andrle-Ross Expedition be­gan in June and was to last through December. The two highest, dor­mant volcanoes within the sierra were named Volcán San Martín and Volcán Santa Marta. They rose from the Gulf of Mexico to just under 6,000 feet, and except for the lowest 1,300 feet, which had been cleared, were cloaked in secondary or virgin montane tropical rainforest. Each non-rainy morning, Andrle and I would arise in the colorless predawn hours, then drive our jeep or ride mules to a planned destination as the first light washed the eastern ho­rizon. Birds are most active in early morning, but butterflies are not early risers. Therefore, during the early hours I assisted Andrle in spot­ting birds. Later, I would wander off by myself netting butterflies.

One August morning we hoped to follow a newly constructed log­ging road up Volcán San Martín. But the road was too wet for our jeep, so we continued on “shank’s mare” (our own two feet) to an elevation of about 2,200 feet. The forest canopy was at least 100 feet above the forest floor, and some titans with massively buttressed trunks towered far higher, bearing lianas, mosses, lichens, bromeliads, and orchids. Few plants were in flower, but the shadowy forest did harbor butterflies, including ithomi­ids, those almost transparent species commonly referred to as “glass­wings” or “clearwings.”

Suddenly I spotted what ap­peared to be a snow-white bird gliding above the forest canopy. But no, the specter was instead an enormous butterfly. Based on what I remembered reading, this had to be the “white morpho” (Morpho polyphemus)—an unusual member of a group of large tropical but­terflies that usually sport metallic blue wings. From my vantage point along the road, I now could see that the butterfly was particularly at­tracted to the emergents, trees that rose above the canopy. The insect would circle—perhaps searching for its host plant or for a source of nectar or nutritious sap—then move on, flapping its wings with deep, deliberate strokes. I stood there, hop­ing that when it crossed the road it would descend to ground level.

But no such luck. The butterfly simply dipped before disappearing above the wall of forest on the other side. Within seconds, though, two similar individuals appeared above the road. Alas, they too remained beyond reach. But to my surprise, they began to circle each other slowly, as if pirouetting in a silent ballet. My ornithologist partner, intrigued by the birdlike size of the butterflies, hatched a plan: he would attempt to shoot down the insects with his 12-gauge shotgun loaded with hand-packed “dust shot,” a proven method for bringing down distant small birds. All I could en­vision was butterfly confetti. But then I rationalized: specimens in any shape would serve as acceptable vouchers for my research collection.

Andrle took aim, then pulled the trigger. The two butterflies drifted like intact leaves to the ground about thirty feet before me. I ran! To my amazement the hapless specimens were still alive—barely. Their wings had been peppered, but fully 90 percent of the mem­branes were still in place. Now I could closely examine the butter­flies. Both were males. Wingspan was a whopping seven to eight inches; forewings and hindwings were an opalescent white and of equal size, and so the wing surface was both beautifully reflective and massive. Another extraordinary fea­ture was the body: also white but inordinately small (perhaps this lack of muscle was the reason for such slow flight?). With the specimens now in hand, I confirmed that the species was Morpho polyphemus. (Subsequent identification proved the subspecies to be M. p. luna, the taxon with the most sizable indi­viduals and purportedly the larg­est butterfly in the New World.) After dispatching the butterflies by hand, I placed them into the largest glassine envelopes I carried; in turn, the envelopes went into a plastic container for protection in my field bag.

As the morning progressed, we en­countered other white morphos. Then, around noon, a single one began descending toward a sizable patch of shrubbery growing in full sunlight along the roadside, no more than 100 feet ahead of me. I ran, but stopped short of the green­ery. I recognized that the plants could be no other than Cnidoscolus angustidens (family Euphorbiaceae), the infamous mala mujer (“bad,” “evil,” or “wicked woman”). Ev­ery leaf and stem is covered with a dense array of nettle-like hairs and spines that inflict severe pain on any transgressing mammal. I had once unknowingly brushed a leaf with my hand, and my skin had begun to tingle instantly with fiery prickles; then the pain had rapidly intensified and continued for an hour or so.

Adding insult to injury, the morpho had selected a leaf in the middle of a stand that covered 150 or 200 square feet—a potential whole sea of trouble. I could judge that even the long handle of my net could not reach the butterfly from my position. In the end, my zeal over­ruled common sense. So, after checking to make sure the buttons on my long-sleeved shirt were secured, I dashed intrepidly into the green hell. When I judged the butterfly to be within netting range, I swung vigorously, about-faced, and beelined it back to the road. Only then did I check the net. My quarry’s gigantic wings rubbed au­dibly against the cloth. I shouted: “I got it! I got it!” I gently removed the butterfly, a female (the larger sex) in mint condition. I had my Holy Grail.

As my adrenaline began to wane, I noticed that the skin covering my hands, neck, and chin was becom­ing mottled red and really burning. I quickly doused the afflicted areas with the only potential remedy I had—water from my canteen. Mercifully, the pain plateaued, and there were no signs of anaphylactic shock. Over my nearly two years of research within the area, I collected a dozen or so additional white morpho specimens. However, those gunshot specimens and that perfect female captured in a colony of “wicked women,” although bittersweet, remain the most memorable.

Recent Stories

The way they live, the food they eat, and the effect on us

A true but unlikely tale

Story and Photographs by William Rowan

Increasing day length on the early Earth boosted oxygen released by photosynthetic cyanobacteria.

Genomic evidence shows that Denisovans and modern humans may have overlapped in Wallacea.