Article and photos by Moralea Milne Originally published in Mexi-Go! June 2012
One of the most pleasant aspects of retirement is finding you now have the leisure to explore and enjoy new interests. The last few years I have been visiting Mexico more and more often.
One of my children has settled there, friends are vacationing and buying property in different areas of Mexico and I find the culture, climate and biodiversity both intriguing and relaxing. One of the passions I indulge on every possible occasion (along with chocolate…) is the thrilling hunt to find moth and butterfly species; whether new, or familiar favourites, they all bring delight!
Mexico has a huge diversity of butterflies, at least 1,750 species can be found there. From the lowlands to the mountaintops, from the plains to the mangroves, there are always some butterflies on the prowl. Of course you will find more species at certain times of the year, when nectar-laden flowers reach peak abundance.
Butterflies are not only beautiful flying jewels (the iridescent blues of a Two-barred Flasher or the complex and vibrant patterning of a Tanmark will take your breath away), but they also exhibit fascinating strategies for survival.
Hairstreaks have a threadlike tail that can be mistaken for the butterfly’s antennae. A hungry bird will often notice the tail first and take a bite, which, if luck is with the butterfly, will only damage the wings. I’ve seen countless butterflies with bits and pieces missing, but they are still able to pursue their primary focus, to find a mate. The large “eyes” that can be found on Buckeyes and Owlets (and many moths) are another example of false targets.
Some butterflies use colouration as camouflage, the green of a Malachite can be difficult to find amid the lush subtropical forest it inhabits, while the shape and subtle shades of a Leafwing make it almost indistinguishable from a dead leaf. Caterpillars of Viceroy and Swallowtail butterflies resemble bird droppings at some point in their development.
Mimicry is another form of protection. Sporting similar colours to a Monarch, which is poisonous, can deceive a predator into thinking that you, too, are not worth the risk of indigestion.
Did you know that butterflies will sip from almost any flower that supplies nectar, but their caterpillar young feed only on very specific plants? Many people are delighted by butterflies and grow flowers that attract them into their gardens. However, if you don’t know which foods nourish the caterpillars (passionflowers for Zebra Heliconians and Gulf Fritillaries), you might inadvertently be removing and killing their juvenile stage. Learning the life histories of any species gives me a greater understanding of their needs and the importance of preserving their habitat. Protecting natural habitat insures that food plants for all stages of their butterfly lives are available and we can continue to be enchanted at their flamboyant or cryptic forms far into the future.
If you’re interested in identifying Mexican butterflies, there is a great field guide available for sale online: A Swift Guide to Butterflies of Mexico and Central America by Jeffrey Glassberg at sunstreakbooks.com