The Life of Blue Morpho Butterflies
BLUE MORPHO NATURAL HISTORY
The blue morpho butterfly (Morpho menelaus) is one of 30 species of butterfly falling under the Morphinae family. As the name would imply, blue morphos are known worldwide for their dazzlingly iridescent wings. The shine of their wings is so bright and vivacious that its blue sheen can be seen by pilots flying over head. They are one of the most highly collected and sought after species of insect in the world and make an excellent center piece for any collection, amateur or professional.
Blue morphos have been known to humans for a long time, and authors, poets, and scientists have often commented on their unique and aesthetically pleasing appearance. In fact, the name “morpho” comes from a Greek word meaning “shapely one,” most commonly used to describe Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of beauty and love. The Russian author Vladimir Nabokov famously described their appearance as “shimmering light-blue mirrors,” and the butterfly has been used as a symbol throughout history to represent hope, change, light, endurance and life.
Appearance & Anatomy
Adult morphos have an average wingspan of 12 cm and so are among the larger species of butterfly. Since they are insects, blue morphos have a body consisting of three segments: head, thorax, and abdomen. They also have two clubbed antennae that they use to sense and probe the environment. Each of their six legs are covered in tiny chemoreceptors that they use for taste. The Morpho genus is separated into two subclades: achilles and hecuba, differentiated by wing shape and function. Blue morphos fall under the subclade achilles and so have wings more suited for gliding. The species is normally not considered sexually dimorphic, but males specimens tend to be larger and a bit more brightly colored than females.
By far though, the most defining characteristic of blue morphos are their shiny blue iridescent wings. Technically, blue morpho wings are not really blue, in the sense that their wings do not contain region of blue pigment. Instead, the shiny gleam is the result of light reflecting of several microscopic scales that line the wings. Light is scattered by the microscopic structure of the scales and create interference patterns, which explains why blue morpho wings can appear to change color depending on the angle they are looked at. During flight, the light reflecting properties of the scales almost make it look like the wings disappear mid each flap. The structure of blue morpho wings have been studied and applied to make different kinds of fabrics, iridescent paints, and anti-counterfeit technologies.
The underside of the wings are marked with large ocelli—eyespots—meant to discourage predators and confuse prey. Males almost always are more colorful than females, indicating that wing coloration likely plays a role in sexual selection. Blue morpho eyes are also highly sensitive to UV light so they are able to see the sheen of another specimen’s wings from a large distance away.
Behavior & Lifecycle
Blue morphos are native to tropical/subtropical regions in Central and South America; areas such as Brazil, Venezuela, and Mexico. They are most comfortable in warm temperate climates and have a difficult time living in cold and arid regions. Adult morphos subsist primarily on nectar from flowering plants or fruit that has fallen from trees. Like all butterflies, they lack functioning mandibles and so cannot bite or chew their food. Instead, they use a long proboscis with a spongy end to dissolve solid material and lap up liquids. Their natural predators include: birds, lizards, spiders, and small rodents.
Blue morphos are diurnal, meaning that they operate during the day. Since their wings are so large relative to their body, they have a characteristic loopy and bouncy flight pattern, almost as if they just sway willy-nilly along with the wind. Despite their seemingly lackadaisical movement, they are actually quite strong fliers, giving birds and other predators a difficult time when they are trying to snatch them out of the air. The shiny covering on top of the wing is also very hydrophobic and repels water, so blue morphos are one of the few butterflies that will fly in the rain.
The average lifespan of the blue morpho butterfly is 115 days. Blue morphos, like many other kinds of insects, go through 4 mains stages during their life: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and imago (adult). Blue morpho eggs are generally laid on the underside of leaves so the larvae have something to munch on as soon as they hatch. The eggs are translucent and have the shape of small dewdrops. It takes about 7-16 days for the blue morpho to develop from an egg into the larval stage.
Once hatched, caterpillars will feed on nearby leaves and vegetation. Unlike adult specimens, blue morpho caterpillars do have functioning jaws and are capable of biting and chewing. The caterpillar stage is the single stage that has the highest mortality rate, as many caterpillars are eaten by predators because they are slow moving and relatively easy to see. Unlike monarch butterfly caterpillars, blue morpho caterpillars are not poisonous to predators, so they have relatively little defenses. Blue morpho caterpillars are actually able to slow their metabolism to suspend larval development and wait out harsh conditions, an ability found in many insects.
After spending about a month as a caterpillar, the blue morpho enters the pupal statge. During this stage, the caterpillar encloses itself in a cocoon of silk called a chysallis where it undergoes metamorphosis into the adult stage. After spending about 14 days as a pupa, the adult emerges and begins looking for food and opportunities to reproduce. Their adult life is short and normally ends immediately after reproducing. Male specimens will exude pheromones into the air which attracts nearby females. Males fertilize the eggs, which are then laid on the underside of leaves, and the whole cycle begins anew.
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