Strategies for Survival PAGE 1
Butterflies occur in an incredible variety of sizes, shapes, colours and patterns. Each design serves a dual role. Firstly it must act as a "badge", identifying the butterfly to potential mates. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it must function to protect the butterfly from predators, either by using camouflage, warning coloration, mimicry or transparency.
It is possible of course to read too much into the "colour for survival" theme. There does not have to be a survival-related reason for every nuance of pattern or colour. After all, what possible difference could it make if a caterpillar has a brown head instead of a black one ? Having said this however it is quite obvious that a butterfly that is camouflaged as a dead leaf has a much higher chance of survival than one that is not.
Mate recognition

Butterflies generally have short lives, and need to be able to quickly locate potential mates. Many species lose their attraction to the opposite sex within a day or two of emergence because their pheromones become exhausted. Rapid mate recognition is therefore vital.


The first stage in the recognition process consists of intercepting any flying object of roughly the same size and colour as their own species - in the neotropics for example it is easy to attract Morpho butterflies by waving a piece of blue foil in the air.


Many of the more conspicuously coloured species such as Whites and Sulphurs can detect each other from several metres away, but the smaller and duller species need to be much closer - perhaps within one or two metres.

Purple Emperor Apatura iris, male

In many genera such as Apatura, Morpho and Doxocopa the wings of males have an extremely reflective blue sheen, whereas the females are sombre in colour. During flight the wings of the males glint brilliantly in the sunshine, and probably play a major role in mate location and recognition.


Once initial contact has been made, a combination of olfactory and visual factors hold the interest of both sexes as a precursor to the courtship ritual. Visual stimuli include holding the wings or body at particular angles, flicking the wings, or simply displaying the patterns by opening the wings.


During the courtship process a series of exchanges take place during which olfactory and visual stimuli trigger a particular response. A "wrong" response might indicate that the potential mate was not of the same species, or was unwilling to mate - females of many Pierids for example signal an unwillingness to mate by raising their abdomen and outspreading their wings.


A "correct" response invariably triggers an array of further visual, olfactory and tactile stimuli, each leading to a set response which confirms that both butterflies are of the same species, of the opposite sex, and willing to mate. In some species this process is very brief, but in others such as the Small Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae, it is protracted and may take several hours during which the male doggedly follows the female from place to place, persuading her to copulate.

Small Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae
Male butterflies will usually intercept both sexes of their own species. The purpose of male-male sorties is to challenge and oust an intruding male from the "territory" of another, thereby increasing the territory owner's chances of success with any female that passes by.
Males also "know" that they can often find food by following other males :
In tropical regions males of many species visit sandbanks and damp paths to indulge in "mud-puddling". Their purpose is to imbibe mineralised water, from which they obtain vital salts. These are passed to females during copulation, and are believed to be essential for the production of fertile eggs. Females do not normally mud-puddle, they feed instead on nectar.
Typically just one or two males will chance upon a suitable feeding spot, but other butterflies flying past seem able to recognise their brethren on the ground, and swoop down to join them. The bright patch of colourful butterflies quickly becomes a magnet to every passing male of the same species.
Sometimes several different species may be present at these feeding places. In these circumstances one might expect each species to be spread randomly within a large group, but in fact each butterfly polarises very strongly to it's own brethren, so that each species congregates as a discrete group. In calm weather the butterflies in each group are positioned randomly, but on riverbanks there is usually a constant gentle breeze, so all the butterflies in each group tend to face into the breeze as this way they are less likely to be blown about and lose their feeding spot to a competitor.

Dryas iulia, Peru. A single male on the ground quickly attracts others of the same species.
More information about courtship, feeding and other forms of adult behaviour can be found on the Lifecycle and Anatomy pages, and in the individual species accounts.



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