Friday, December 23, 2011

The Jester

Why don’t cannibals eat clowns? Because they taste funny. The same can be said for Monarch (Danaus plexippus)Queen (Danaus gilippus) and Soldier (Danaus eresimus) butterflies as well as other brightly colored showy species. Most predatory species, particularly birds will avoid the flashy flying insects because they do taste funny. Or awful. These three regal caterpillars feed on milkweed which contains alkaloids which will be necessary for breeding as adults and act as a chemical defense against predators. Once the caterpillar goes through the metamorphic process, bright colors act as a reminder to potential predators that these insects are poisonous. A predator may try one once, but if it survives, and they usually do, they probably will not do it again. This form of defense is known as aposemitism. If it’s brightly colored, best to move on to something else on the buffet line.

And then there’s the Viceroy (Limenitis archippus), orange oligarch of the Lepidoptera and faker in the first degree. Viceroys are said to effectively display Batesian mimicry. They look like the other poisonous members of the king’s court but are they poisonous? It has been long believed that they have evolved to look like a poisonous species which has provided them the defense necessary to avoid predation. Although their larval form feeds on host plants other than milkweed, it’s now thought that Viceroys may in fact be poisonous themselves. If anything the Viceroy is the Jester playing predators and naturalists the fool.

In the swamps of South Florida, the Viceroy looks similar to the abundant Queen butterfly rather than the rare Monarch. The individual that lit upon the back of the alligator prompted a debate regarding its identification. While someone claimed Monarch, I insisted Viceroy and pointed out the black band across the hind wing. They remained insistent and I, the Jester, suggested they move closer for a better look. 

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