Nature: Butterflies and Moths

Dismorphia (Family Pieridae, Yellows and Whites)

In the dark jungles of Central America and South America all kinds of animals and birds and insects hunt butterflies. Life for a butterfly in these places is one continual flight from danger. Some butterflies escape by their swift flight, others by camouflaging themselves to look like bark or leaves. Still others carry a poisonous substance within them that make most other creatures leave them alone in disgust. But perhaps the most interesting way of all is when one butterfly mimics or copies the appearance of a poisonous butterfly so it too will be left alone.

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The Dismorphia is such a mimic. It is rather a weak and helpless butterfly, not at all a swift flier, but it carries on its wings the warning colors that say to a bird or monkey: “I am poisonous! You had better leave me alone!” Of course the Dismorphia is not poisonous at all. But it mimics the appearance of a poisonous Heliconian butterfly, and so many usual enemies leave it alone. If you were to hold the two similar-looking butterflies in your hand, you would always be able to tell the difference between them by looking at their feet. The Dismorphia has 6 complete feet, the other one 4.

Now how did the Dismorphia become a mimic. Certainly not by saying to itself: “I am going to make myself like the poisonous Heliconian!” No, what happened was that over ages and ages of time those Dismorphia that looked most like the Heliconian were saved, while those who did not were eaten. So gradually the Dismorphia came to look more and more like the Heliconian.

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