Archives For Butterflies & Blooms

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 & Bloomswe 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

It’s been another fantastic season at Butterflies & Blooms, which is open through September 5 at the Chicago Botanic Garden. This is my second year working at Butterflies & Blooms, and I think it’s looking better than ever. 

The biggest surprise this year happened this week.

We received some big, hairy atlas moth cocoons, and I was a little concerned about whether they would have time to emerge before we have to shut our doors for the season. When I came into the pupae chamber a few days after they arrived, there was a giant female Attacus atlas staring at me, as if to say, “Ha! I showed you!” I chuckled to myself. Our volunteers had also assumed we might not have any more moths this season, so they were equally surprised. I brought it out of the display, its strong feet clinging to my finger. I reached far up into a serviceberry tree and placed the moth where visitors could get an ideal view. Just a few minutes later, a handful of photographers stopped by, and they happily snapped away.

PHOTO: Photographers snap pictures of our new atlas moth, “Aaliyah.”

Volunteer Robyn Lynblad came up with the idea of naming each moth the way meteorologists name tropical storms, so we named this one “Aaliyah.”

To make that week even better, a new African moon moth (Argema mimosae) emerged. We are not sure if it’s male or female, so we decided to name it “Bobby.” Bobby and Aaliyah (the atlas moth) will definitely be hanging around for a couple of weeks, so come over and say hello.

PHOTO: Atlas moth.

Photo by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

PHOTO: African moon moth.

Photo by Tucson Botanical (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Butterflies & Blooms will be moving to its new home at the Regenstein Learning Campus in 2017. I can’t think of a more appropriate place for visitors to come to interact and learn about nature in some of its most beautiful forms. Being able to study and interact with nature has a profound effect on people of all ages, especially children. It awakens the childlike wonder that we all have. It certainly has for me.

See Butterflies & Blooms in its current location from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through September 5, 2016.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

We humans have used technology to become masters of communication. But we are far from the only species with an impressive array of “superhuman” abilities. Butterflies have unique features they use for socializing, mating, warding off predators, and more!

PHOTO: Scarlet Mormon (Papilio rumanzovia). Photo by Bill Bishoff.

Scarlet Mormon (Papilio rumanzovia)
Photo by Bill Bishoff

Consider the butterfly’s ability to see ultraviolet light. UV light is a spectrum of light between 10 and 400 nanometers that humans and most other animals cannot sense. Butterflies have complex mechanisms for both receiving and sending UV light, and they use these amazing gifts in a variety of clever ways.

One well-known phenomenon is the relationship between butterflies and nectar-producing flowers. Thanks to special photoreceptors in their huge compound eyes, butterflies can detect ultraviolet light. Many flowers have evolved to display ultraviolet patterning that helps lead the butterflies directly to their nectaries, resulting in a mutually beneficial exchange—nectar for the butterfly, pollination for the flower. These patterns can resemble airport landing strips or helicopter pads, advertising, “The food is in here!” The butterflies easily hone in on these markings and land on the flower petals.

From there, another unique ability helps to ensure the butterflies find what they’re looking for.

A chemoreceptor is a sensory cell or organ responsive to chemical stimuli.

Butterflies have chemoreceptors on their feet (among other places), so when they land on something, they can instantly “taste” whether it’s a food source or not. This comes in handy for food sources that do not have UV patterning, like rotting meat. (Yes, butterflies derive nutrients from deceased animals.)

PHOTO: Butterfly wing scales under a microscope. Photo credit: Thomas Eisner.

Butterfly wing scales as seen under a microscope. Photo credit: Thomas Eisner. Learn more about butterfly scales from his post, Scales: On the Wings of Butterflies and Moths.

Some people will be surprised to learn that in addition to sensing ultraviolet light, butterflies can also emit ultraviolet light waves through their wings. Their wings are coated with minuscule scales that can reflect different color spectrums, depending on their shape and the angle of light that hits them.

As the angle of sunlight shifts, the colors emitted from these scales shift. This is how visitors can watch our butterflies “change color” as they flap their wings and flutter about. The structure of these scales reflects many wavelengths of light that we perceive as brilliant colors, but the scales also reflect UV waves, which other butterflies can pick up on for communication.

Since butterflies have many predators, being able to send and receive discrete messages in the form of UV light ensures they won’t be detected. This is often used as a secretive means of courtship. Think of it as two naval ships using their flashing beacons to silently communicate without being detected by enemies. Alternatively, think of it like online dating. 

Male butterflies will pick up on the vivid UV patterning of a female, and begin their courtship rituals. The female will check out the UV patterning of the male to decide if he has the right stuff. If he does not, she will assume a posture that I described in my previous post, that is, lifting her wings and abdomen. What I didn’t know earlier was that by lifting her wings, the female effectively covers up the UV light that attracted the male in the first place, causing him to lose interest and leave. I guess things haven’t changed much in the last six million years!

PHOTO: Vogel’s Organ is thought to be used for hearing birds flap their wings. Photo credit: Ray Cannon.

Vogel’s Organ is thought to be used for hearing birds flap their wings. Photo credit: Ray Cannon. Read more about it in Ray Cannon’s Nature Notes.

Noisy butterflies?

As if ultraviolet-manipulation abilities weren’t enough, did you know that our blue morpho and giant owl butterflies have vestigial ears? Called “Vogel’s Organs,” they use these sense receptors to detect birds. Our cracker butterflies (Hamadryas sp.) can use these organs to sense—and create—ultrasonic sound waves to evade bats. What’s more, we have butterflies that can turn the table on their predators by scaring them off using markings that look identical to snakeheads and giant eyeballs!

PHOTO: Starry Cracker (Hamadryas laodamia).

Starry cracker (Hamadryas laodamia)

Stay tuned for the next installment of news from Butterflies & Blooms—the evolutionary war of super-senses and abilities among butterflies continues.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

On a typical day in the Butterflies & Blooms exhibition, you will see our butterflies flying, sunning themselves, or resting in the foliage.

If you happen to come to the exhibition just after a rain shower, and the sun is shining, it’s your lucky day, because love is literally in the air.

PHOTO: Butterflies mating.

Warm temperatures after a good rain seem to encourage butterfly mating. Photo © Andreas Krappweis

I remember one day in the exhibition when the weather was lousy. It had been raining all morning. While the volunteers and I huddled around in our ponchos, the butterflies were fine, hanging out in the trees, awaiting the sun. Around noon, the rain finally stopped and the clouds parted, saturating the exhibition with hot, bright sunshine. The exhibition had become a steamy hothouse. At that moment, almost every one of our 200-plus butterflies started flying. They had been waiting all morning for this.

The air in the exhibition was laced with pheromones from many different butterfly species, driving the males into a frenzy. I looked around and watched as male butterflies slammed into one another as they were in hot pursuit of a lone female. Even when two butterflies paired off, there would be a jilted male who wouldn’t give up trying to separate them by trying to knock the pair apart.

I was stunned at the variety and complexity of the courtship dances and rituals being displayed. A pair of Junonia iphita, or chocolate pansy butterflies, would fly to about 5 feet, at which point they would descend in a perfect interlocking spiral, straight down until they hit the ground. They would repeat this courtship ritual over and over again. Another incredible display was the Graphium agamemnon, or tailed jay butterfly.

PHOTO: Graphium agamemnon (Tailed jay) butterfly by Anne Belmont.

Tailed jay (Graphium agamemnon) butterfly by Anne Belmont

One tailed jay would fly in a straight line, while a second one (assumedly the male) would rapidly orbit around the first one, sort of like the moon orbiting the earth as it flies through space. This little trick just blew me away. I then noticed butterflies were mating in mid-air. One butterfly would do the flying, while the other would be hanging precariously below. This stunt was made possible by the male’s “claspers.” These claspers work exactly as they sound: they grab hold of the female, making sure that they remain together.

Papilio lowii (Great yellow mormon) butterfly by Anne Belmont.

Great yellow mormon (Papilio lowi) butterfly by Anne Belmont

PHOTO: Cethosia cyane (Leopard lacewing) butterfly.

Leopard lacewing (Cethosia cyane) butterfly by Robin Carlson

There were many more amazing acts of nature going on during this incredible spectacle. Some butterflies would attempt to mate with a different species. Sometimes males would try to mate. I even spied a trio of butterflies interlocked, forming a tangle of wings pointing in every direction. Two were a pair of Papilio lowii, or yellow mormon butterflies, while the interloper was a Cethosia cyane, or leopard lacewing. Now I thought I had seen it all. These butterflies were making human relationships seem tame. Visitors were enjoying the show, too. They would say, “This is supposed to be a ‘family’ exhibit!”

Females who had already mated or just weren’t impressed by the males would sit on a leaf with their wings spread and their abdomens held high in the air. This made mating impossible.

Blue Morpho (Morpho peleides)

Blue Morpho (Morpho peleides) by Bill Bishoff

Then, I saw something really baffling. To this day, lepidopterists know very little about the courtship of everyone’s favorite butterfly, Morpho peleides, the blue morpho. It started when one blue morpho clung to the netting of our enclosure.

Next, almost a dozen other morphos came over and began to form a very tight swarm around the morpho hanging on the netting. The group formed a writhing cloud around the butterfly on the netting, bumping into each other and circling around the individual. I did not see any of them pair off and mate. They just danced frenetically around the center morpho.

Was the center morpho somehow the only female, and all the males were simply trying to mate with her? I doubt it. We usually have an even ratio of males to females in the exhibition. Perhaps the center morpho acted as a beacon, releasing pheromones so that her kind would gravitate toward her designated “mating area” and mate with one another. She was the orchestrator of the ritual, silently sitting and directing her kin to carry out their biological imperative.

PHOTO: Large tiger longwing (Lycorea cleobaea) butterflies mating in the exhibit

Large tiger longwing (Lycorea cleobaea) butterflies mating in the exhibit; photo by Jill Emas Davis

The moral of the story is this: run to the butterfly exhibition if it has recently stopped raining. You might get a chance to see some amazing butterfly mating behavior.

Butterflies & Blooms is open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through September 5, 2016. Bringing the family? Our Summer Family Fun Pack includes parking and five tickets to Butterflies & Blooms and the Model Railroad Garden.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org