Critter Corner: Butterflies are free and abundant here
Jan. 30, 2011 at 10:02 p.m.
Updated Jan. 29, 2011 at 7:30 p.m.
By Karalyn Jones
Of the 600 species of butterflies in the United States, 450 have been recorded in Texas.
South Texas specifically is a hot spot for butterflies with more than 300 different species being sighted.
Butterflies and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera, which comes from the Greek words lepido and ptera meaning "scale" and "wings." This is because butterfly and moth wings are covered in thousands of tiny scales, which are actually flat hairs called setae.
These scales create the kaleidoscopic of colors and mimicry we see in butterfly wings.
Every color of the rainbow is represented in the butterfly world and even colors we cannot see - some wings display ultraviolet color. While this display of color is beautiful, there's more to a butterfly's color than meets the eye.
The shape, placement, and color of the scales that create the dazzling images on a butterfly's wings are determined in first few days of the pupa (chrysalis) stage by environmental and genetic factors.
The design can serve a myriad of purposes:
Camouflage - the wings may mimic leaves or flowers or simply blend in to the surrounding, brightly colored plants. The Indian Leaf Mimic butterfly appears like a dead leaf when it's wings are folded.
Warning - bright color or spots in the wild typically means poisonous or foul-tasting. Butterflies with such may be both or may just be mimicking a butterfly that is. The Monarch butterfly is poisonous and brightly colored. The Queen butterfly that mimics it is not.
Attraction - design patterns can differentiate between male and female. Female swallowtail butterflies have more blue on their hindwings (lower) than males.
Divergence - eye spots, called ocelli, can surprise predators or at least attract the attack to a less vital area. Owl butterflies have ocelli on the outer tip of their hindwings.
Melanization - wings with extra black (melanized) scales absorb more heat from the sun. As an insect, butterflies are cold-blooded and need energy from heat to survive.
Further, the wings tend to have different patterns on the front (upperside) and back (underside), allowing the wings to serve additional purposes.
Male butterflies have scent scales that release pheromones to attract female butterflies as well.
When a butterfly first emerges from its chrysalis (moths make cocoons), its wings aren't ready for flight. The wings are wet, wrinkled, and lifeless. To pump blood into them, the butterfly will hang upside down. It then must wait for them to dry.
Getting impatient would be disastrous - frayed or torn wings do not grow back or repair.
For an up-close and free encounter with these colorful wings, visit our Butterfly House this weekend at the Family Outdoor Expo. There you can learn more about these fascinating insects and walk through a screened butterfly house of native Texas butterflies.
Karalyn Jones is the Texas Zoo's education curator. For more information about the zoo or upcoming events, visit www.texaszoo.org or call 361-573-7681.