How can half a butterfly fly?

2 July 2013

Writing the last article, on heliotrope, reminded me of a photo I’ve got from years ago, of three Small Whites on heliotrope. It is memorable because the butterflies were in such a tatty state – in fact, I’m not even positive they are Small Whites: there is so much damage to their wings that the main identifying mark on the top of the wing is not visible. A Small White will just have a dash of black across the tip of its forewings, wheras the Large White has a mark with extends further down the side of the wing – you can see examples at http://dorsetbutterflies.com/species/whites.htmlcom

Three very tatty Whites on heliotrope

Three very tatty Whites on heliotrope

The two pictures below are both of Red Admirals. The one on the left shows very clearly how the butterfly has been grabbed by a bird, but how it managed to get away and go about its business: if the bird had grabbed its body, it would have been dead. The photo on the right shows bird damage, but also illustrates how faded old butterflies can look. The colour on the butterfly’s wings is created by huge numbers of microsopic scales, which may have pigment, but which will also reflect light in a particular way, creating what we perceive as colour. A butterfly looks worn because it has lost scales throughout its life, so the colours become dull and the butterfly almost transparent in places.

Red Admirals showing signs of bird damage and wear

Red Admirals showing signs of bird damage and wear

I’m not sure just how much wing a butterfly has to lose before it can’t fly – the Speckled Wood below, photographed last year, barely seems to have any rear wings at all, but was flying very competently. There are advantages to not having the “consciousness” that we humans boast about: if you have no concept that you cannot fly, you continue to do so until it really is physically impossible. A good lesson to learn.

Speckled Wood seen flying in the garden last year, despite having lost most of its hind wings.

Speckled Wood seen flying in the garden last year, despite having lost most of its hind wings.

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