Archives For Patrick Sbordone

At Butterflies & Blooms on Monday, I saw something I had never seen before in my five years as a butterfly wrangler at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I noticed that a leopard lacewing’s right wings were bright orange, just like any other male of the species, but the left wings were beige—only females have beige wings. This lacewing was half male and half female, or a gynandromorphic butterfly.

Underside of the gynandromorphic leopard lacewing

Underside of the gynandromorphic leopard lacewing

Topside of the gynandromorphic leopard lacewing

Topside of the gynandromorphic leopard lacewing

That morning, when I had discovered the male-female lacewing, butterfly visitors had been waiting for me to release butterflies from the pupae chamber. So I packed up the lacewing, with all of the other newborns. I then released each of the two dozen butterflies that had hatched that morning, saving our special discovery for last. I got everyone’s attention and announced, “This is extremely rare! As a butterfly wrangler, I have released many thousands of butterflies, but this is the one and only butterfly that is literally half male and half female!” The visitors were fascinated by the lacewing, which sat on the tip of my finger. Then it took flight and was free in the blink of an eye. Luckily, one of our volunteers snapped some beautiful photos.

Later, it occurred to me that this specimen could actually be a valuable contribution to science, and if nothing else, something that everyone should get a chance to see. I tried to find and capture it so an expert could take a closer look. A full day went by without anyone seeing it. I was afraid we had missed an opportunity to contribute something special to the scientific community, but our luck was about to change. 

On Wednesday morning, I was chatting with a young butterfly enthusiast about the gynandromorphic lacewing. I asked him if he could keep an eye out and possibly help me find it. He said, “Oh, you mean like this one?” He turned and pointed to the rare creature, which was sunbathing just behind his head. I couldn’t believe it. I offered to name the butterfly after him, but he modestly declined. I’m still trying to reach out to experts. Meanwhile, after that, I brought the special butterfly back into the pupae chamber, where it has been on display to visitors. I have been feeding it by hand, using a piece of foam dipped in fruit juice and Gatorade, which the butterfly seems to love.

Here is a little information about gynandromorphism. Gynandromorphs are very rare, but can be found in birds, fish, crustaceans, and butterflies, among other organisms. Usually, gynandromorphs have an uneven mixture of male and female features, but our special butterfly has an even rarer form of gynandromorphism because the male and female traits are bilateral, meaning they are split perfectly down the center of the body. How rare are we talking? In a 1980s study, only five out of 30,000 butterflies displayed gynandromorphism.

So how does gynandromorphism occur? There are several possibilities having to do with mishaps that occur during early cell division. Butterflies have a W and a Z chromosome for female and male, respectively. Sometimes, the W and Z chromosomes get stuck together during cell division, resulting in a mixture of male and female traits. In another scenario, the embryo is “double fertilized,” resulting in both female and male nuclei throughout the organism. The causes include bacterial or viral infections, ultraviolet radiation, and other environmental factors that can alter an organism’s DNA during division and growth.

In any case, it’s cool to have a butterfly with such a rare deformation that is still fully able to exist as a healthy adult, sipping nectar and basking in the adoration and fascination of its fans. We have not yet named this butterfly, so please leave some suggestions. The typical lifespan of an adult butterfly is about two weeks, so drop by Butterflies & Blooms and say hello to our newest celebrity.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

One day at Butterflies & Blooms, I noticed a crepuscular, cosmopolitan imago puddling in order to prepare for an upcoming lek. What did I just say?

The vocabulary surrounding Lepidoptera can be very specific—and not so easy to understand. Let’s break it down, and go over some of my favorite butterfly and moth terminology (and learn some of the amazing things these insects do). Then, see if you can decode the sentence above. 

Painted Lady (Vanesa cardui)

The very cosmopolitan painted lady (Vanesa cardui)

Cosmopolitan—In this case, a cosmopolitan is not a mixed drink or a well-traveled individual—although this term is related to being in many geographic locations. “Cosmopolitan” describes a butterfly species that is found worldwide. The painted lady is considered cosmopolitan; it is found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.

Crepuscular—Crepuscular species tend to be most active at dawn and dusk. At Butterflies & Blooms, we have a few species that prefer to fly around during the early morning and late afternoon, when the sunlight is less intense. Species such as the giant owl, as well as other butterflies in the genus Caligo are considered crepuscular based on this behavior pattern.

Diapause—Here in the Midwest, many people wonder how butterflies survive the winter. The answer is diapause. Chrysalids can feel and respond to the temperature outside of their protective exoskeletons. If they notice a few cold nights, they will react by going into a dormant phase called diapause. When this happens, they cease development, and the shell of the chrysalis will turn brown and harden; this is how they survive the overwintering. Many pupae are green in order to blend in with the surrounding foliage, so it makes sense that they would turn brown in the winter to blend in with the dead, brown foliage. When the warmth and light of spring return, they become green again and complete their metamorphosis into adult butterflies.

PHOTO: Danaus chrysippus chrysalids

One of these Danaus chrysippus chrysalids is not like the others. Did it begin to enter diapause during shipment? Or did this African queen butterfly begin its pupation in an area without typical greenery? We are still learning ourselves.

Eclosion—Here at Butterflies & Blooms, we normally refer to our butterflies as “emerging” or even “hatching” from their pupal state. The correct scientific term for this is actually “eclosion.” If you want to impress (or possibly annoy) your friends, tell them that when chrysalids complete their diapause, they resume metamorphosis, and eclose into adult imagos! 

Frugiverous—Butterflies such as the ever popular blue morpho, giant owl, and the great orange deadleaf are frugiverous; they come from habitats where there aren’t many wildflowers available, so they turn to feeding solely on fruit instead. This is why we have trays of fermented fruit in the exhibit.

PHOTO: monarch butterfly on fruit tray.

A selection of watermelon, banana, grapefruit, and orange slices are an attractive source of food to frugiverous butterflies like this monarch.

Generalist vs. Specialist—Some butterflies are successful because they “specialize” in certain plant families. This means that their success is somewhat tied to the success or failure of the particular plant they evolved to rely on. This is the case for monarch butterflies. Monarchs have evolved to rely on plants in the milkweed (Asclepias) family as both a nectar source and host plant on which to lay eggs. Although there are many different types of milkweed, this is still considered a niche. On one hand, this can be a benefit, because the monarch can capitalize on the unique benefits that come from plants in the milkweed family. On the other hand, if milkweed declines, monarchs don’t have any alternative plant families to use as hosts.

Generalists, such as the painted lady, can use a wide variety of plants families to lay eggs on, such as carrots, mints, and nettles. This ensures that they will always be able to find suitable host plants. Humans are also generalists, as we are able to use a wide variety of food sources and habitats.

Imago—While we simply refer to our butterflies as “adults,” the true term for the final stage of butterfly development is “imago.” The life stages of a butterfly are egg, caterpillar (larvae), chrysalis (pupae), and adult (imago). Interestingly, the term “imago” also refers to a human individual’s idealized image of himself or herself. What’s your personal imago?

Lekking—This is a very interesting term, because until the blue morpho was discovered, lekking was not thought to be a behavior found in butterflies. Lekking is a type of mating ritual in which all the males form a group and compete, showing off their most admirable features. The males with the right stuff will be the ones who get to mate and pass on their genes. With blue morphos, only the most colorful males will get this privilege. I once witnessed a group of blue morphos “lekking” at Butterflies & Blooms. A group of about ten males were hypnotically circling around a single female. I couldn’t believe my eyes!

Polymorphism—Some of our butterfly species display polymorphism, including the mocker swallowtail and the postman. This means that within the species, the wings can have numerous pattern variations. This can make their identification tricky. The postman butterfly (Heliconius melpomene) is intensely studied by Lepidopterists because its patterning is more variable than any other butterfly species on earth. Here at Butterflies & Blooms, we have observed at least four distinct patterns from this one species of butterfly. Some have a white “skirt” along the bottom of their hind wings, some have a red spot on each forewing, and yet others have a pair of red spots on each wing.

Heliconius melpomene aglaope

Heliconius melpomene aglaope

Heliconius melpomene melpomene

Heliconius melpomene melpomene

Heliconius melpomene amaryllis

Heliconius melpomene amaryllis

Puddling—Puddling is the tendency of butterflies to sit in wet soil or stone and extract the minerals from the ground. Apparently, puddling is somewhat exclusive to male butterflies, because they need these minerals for sperm production. This is also why the butterflies (especially males) land on visitors. They drink our sweat to obtain these precious salts, sometimes absorbing them directly through a t-shirt!

Blue-spotted Charaxes (Charaxes cithaeron)

A blue-spotted charaxes (Charaxes cithaeron) puddles in gravel after a brief rain shower

Sexual Dimorphism—Butterflies tend to have different color and sizes based on whether they are male or female. This phenomenon is known as sexual dimorphism. Because female butterflies lay eggs, they tend to be a bit larger than the males. The males tend to have richer coloration and/or bolder patterns. Just like birds and fish, females will tend to choose the males with the boldest colors, as this indicates healthy genes.

Male leopard lacewing (Cethosia cyane)

Male leopard lacewing (Cethosia cyane)

Female leopard lacewing (Cethosia cyane)

Female leopard lacewing (Cethosia cyane)

These are just a handful of terms I like to use when talking about our amazing collection of butterflies. Expect to be quizzed on them during your next visit to Butterflies & Blooms!


Postman comparison images by Notafly (self-made Own photograph.Studio.Nikon.) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Flame-bordered charaxes (Charaxes protoclea) and blue-spotted charaxes (Charaxes cithaeron) ©Patty Dodson

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

At the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Butterflies & Blooms exhibition, I receive a wide variety of questions about butterfly physiology. My favorite questions are ones that don’t have a substantiated answer, only theories posited by lepidopterists (or those who study butterflies and moths). I always enjoy these questions, since they are on the cutting edge of scientific understanding.

One such question is: “What are those specs of gold on the monarch butterflies?” The short answer is “Nobody knows!” But there are a few interesting theories.

Zebra longwing chrysalis (Heliconius charithonia) top view, showing gold markings

Zebra longwing chrysalis (Heliconius charithonia) top view, showing gold markings; photo via BugGuide.net. Copyright © 2006 Hannah Nendick-Mason

Lepidopterists approach strange features such as metallic markings by asking, “What sort of advantage would this feature give to the butterfly?” Every trait found in nature exists because it gave that individual more opportunities to reproduce. Perhaps the trait helps keep the butterfly from being eaten, or it gives a male butterfly bright colors to impress the ladies, or perhaps it allows the butterfly to utilize new food sources when nectar isn’t available.

When butterflies emerge from their chrysalids, they are very vulnerable to predators like birds, since they can’t move. Their only defense is to display colors and patterns that either signal poison or blend into the environment. That means the features we see on chrysalids are no accident, as they offered an advantage and were subsequently passed down.

Camouflage is the prevailing theory as to why chrysalids sometimes have metallic spots, but wouldn’t a bright spec stick out like a sore thumb? One theory is that the specs imitate the iridescent glistening drops of dew on a leaf in the morning or after a rain.

Another theory is that the gold specs are a way of the pupae shouting, “I’m poisonous! Leave me alone or you’ll be sorry!” In the world of insects, reds, oranges, and yellows universally indicate poison, whether the insect is actually poisonous or not. Many insects, including butterflies and their pupae, use this trick to their advantage. My favorite trick is when a chrysalis has evolved to look just like a little snake. Imagine how shocked a bird or a bat would be when it discovers it’s next meal might actually make a meal out of it instead!

spicebush swallowtail caterpillar

Butterflies have adapted a variety of techniques to ward of predators while pupating, such as mimicking snakes or simply blending in. Photo by Judy Gallagher via Wikimedia Commons

Water drops in nature

One theory for the gold and silver spots found on chrysalids is to mimic water droplets.

While monarchs and longwing butterflies have gold specs, we often have species of butterflies that decided to have even more swagger by making their chrysalids appear to be solid gold. Guests often compare them to exotic gold jewelry. These pupae are so shiny, you can clearly see your own reflection in them—and that’s the point. What better way to blend into your habitat than to literally mirror it? This is the prevailing scientific theory, anyway.

Solid gold pupa

Pupae that are fully metallic are thought to blend in by literally mirroring their surroundings. You can actually see my phone and hands reflected in the chrysalids.

When you see a metallic spot on a butterfly chrysalis, you are seeing yellow and orange pigments, but it’s the intricate microscopic structure of the outer chrysalis that gives it its metallic sheen. This is where things get a bit more complicated. Entomologists refer to the outer surface of metallic chrysalids as “multiple endocuticular thin alternating layers.” That’s quite a mouthful, so they call it M.E.T.A.L. for short. The acronym fits perfectly.

Here’s another way to think of what you are seeing: Imagine a butterfly’s chrysalis as several thinly stacked layers of windows. When sunlight hits these windows, they absorb and reflect light, giving a glimmering effect.

In each phase of a butterfly’s life cycle, it is extremely vulnerable to being eaten. From slow, plump caterpillars to immobilized chrysalids to paper-thin, delicate adults, they’ve found ingenious ways to survive and reproduce. Come to Butterflies & Blooms and see for yourself.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Don’t trust your eyes—that leaf is actually a butterfly

The orange dead leaf (Kallima inachus)

Patrick Sbordone —  July 20, 2017 — 2 Comments

As the season has been progressing at Butterflies & Blooms at the Chicago Botanic Garden, we have been lucky enough to receive a very special butterfly species and a definite crowd-pleaser: the orange dead leaf (Kallima inachus). 

If we didn’t point out this character to guests, no one would ever suspect that they were looking at a butterfly.

I like to describe the orange dead leaf butterfly as being able to mimic a dead leaf better than an actual dead leaf can. When it closes its wings, the butterfly has a perfectly ovate silhouette, complete with both a pointed leaf apex at the front tip and a petiole, or the stalk that attaches leaf to stem, on the hindside. The wing is a drab brown, with leaf vein arrangement very similar to that of a flowering dogwood. The orange dead leaf butterfly is at home in broadleaf forests of India, where it blends in with dead foliage during the dry season, going unnoticed by all but the sharpest predators. Here at Butterflies & Blooms, this butterfly seems to seek out dead, brown leaves in the tree canopies and uses them as a place to blend in. I always get a kick out of showing people that one of those dead leaves is not what it seems.

Kallima inachus at rest on a branch

Kallima inachus at rest on a branch

Kallima inachus with its wings open

Kallima inachus with its wings open

The butterfly has another surprise for visitors: It has incredibly vivid coloration on the dorsal side of its wings. When the orange dead leaf opens its wings to sun itself or take flight, it shows off its navy blue iridescent wings, with a bright orange stripe on each of the forewings.

We have several other butterfly species that also use one side of their wings to resemble dead foliage, including the autumn leaf (Doleschallia bisaltide) and the great orange tip (Hebomoia glaucippe). However, these species have not mastered the art of camouflage quite like Kallima inachus. Come over to Butterflies & Blooms to check out this fascinating butterfly.


Atlas moth (Attacus atlas)

Atlas moth (Attacus atlas)

While you are here, take a look at the serviceberry tree just to the left of the pupae chamber. We have an unprecedented seven giant atlas moths perched on the tree branches like Christmas tree ornaments. Also, don’t miss all of the blooms: The recent rainy weather has undoubtedly helped the Butterflies & Blooms garden become more floriferous.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Butterflies & Blooms has moved to the Regenstein Learning Campus and I have good feeling it’s going to be the best season yet, because we currently have a plethora of butterfly species native to Brazil. The Chicago Botanic Garden is celebrating Brazil in the Garden this summer, and Butterflies & Blooms is part of the celebration. 

Since we first opened Butterflies & Blooms, we have sought to display the most beautiful butterflies in the world, both exotic and domestic. Naturally, the Amazon rainforest is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. A whopping 60 percent of this precious treasure lies within Brazil. Brazil is home to thousands of butterfly and moth species (in comparison, all of Europe has about 300 species), and scientists have only recorded a fraction of the Lepidoptera species of Brazil and the greater Amazon rainforest.

You can find dozens of butterflies native to Brazil and neighboring countries in the exhibit on any given day. Currently, we have beauties such as the giant owl butterfly (Caligo memnon) and its close relative, the forest mort bleu (Caligo eurilochus). These two butterflies are often confused with moths because of their earth-toned camouflage and also because they are usually found resting on a shady tree branch during the heat of the day.

Large tiger butterfly (Lycorea cleobaea)

The large tiger butterfly (Lycorea cleobaea) thrives in the tropical rainforests of Brazil; find it here in Butterflies & Blooms. Photo ©Anne Belmont.

Blue morpho (Morpho peleides)

One of our most popular butterflies, the blue morpho (Morpho peleides) is another Brazilian native. Photo ©Anne Belmont.

Another pair of Brazilian butterflies that grace the exhibit are the grey cracker (Hamadryas feronia) and the starry cracker (Hamadryas laodamia), They are aptly named, since they can clap their wings while flying in order to make a percussive cracking sound as a means of communication. They use this talent when predators approach, to declare territory, and, of course, for mating. While the grey cracker blends into its environment with its intricate, drab coloration, the starry cracker is very showy, coated with brilliant blue specks on a dark blue field. Looking at it can feel like looking up into a starry night.

At Butterflies & Blooms, you can always find at least a few different species of longwing butterflies (Heliconius). Longwing butterflies have been extensively studied since Victorian times, because they display numerous forms of mimicry. In the late nineteenth century, the naturalist Henry Walter Bates traveled to Brazil and studied these butterflies. He noticed that Heliconius erato would mimic the coloration of other Heliconians, because they were poisonous. This particular form of mimicry was coined  “Batesian mimicry” after the naturalist. When Bates returned from Brazil, he used his findings to help support Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Postman butterfly (Heliconius erato)

One of the longwing butterflies common to Brazil is the postman butterfly (Heliconius erato). Photo ©Anne Belmont

Another naturalist by the name of Fritz Müller observed what became known as “Müllerian mimicry”—also while studying longwings in Brazil. In this case, he noted that multiple species of poisonous butterflies will adopt the same coloration, making it easier for them to be recognized as poisonous would-be predators. Müller’s studies also led him to support Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The Amazon rainforest continues to be a scientific cornucopia to this day. The next time you visit Butterflies & Blooms, check out the owls, crackers, and longwings, and remember that they all represent the natural wonders of the Amazon rainforest and Brazil. Then take a walk through the Garden to discover more of the vibrant plants and colors of Brazil.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org