The Lucky Butterfly: one more story from Wildest Islands, the Philippines

I know I said this was going to be a year of Colombia, but there’s one more story from Wildest Islands that I wanted to share. My new Colombian friend Francisco also pointed out that I’d mentioned in a previous post that I was going to the Philippines and then didn’t blog about it so this is for him. the-lucky-butterfly-photographyThere’s a butterfly which lives in the Philippines that the locals call “The Lucky Butterfly”. They call it “The Lucky Butterfly” because reputedly it lives for 7 days as an adult. I have to say that this doesn’t strike me as being particularly lucky although it’s probably about average for a butterfly. Some live only a day, others up to a year so I guess the “Lucky Butterfly” is “luckyish”. However, while filming this butterfly I uncovered a new story about it which made me think that perhaps, the Lucky Butterfly really did deserve it’s name after all. One morning I was filming a Lucky Butterfly caterpillar feeding on a leaf in the forest. I noticed that before it started to munch the juicy green bits of the leaf the caterpillar walked up to the leaf stalk and started to chew though it. At first this seemed like a bad move because obviously, as soon as it finished eating through the stalk, the leaf and hitchhiker caterpillar would drop to the ground where a multitude of predators would be waiting to attack. But the caterpillar didn’t cut all the way through the stalk, just nearly all the way through, just enough for the leaf to sag. It then walked to the tip of the leaf and started to eat the delicious green bits. I tried putting the caterpillar on several different leaves and each time it repeated the same behavior. It would always chew most of the way through the stalk before moving onto the more edible leaf. The red and yellow colors of the caterpillar also helped to give away it’s strategy. These colors are used by many animals to warn potential predators that they are either poisonous to eat or have a poisonous bite. I presume that the caterpillars food plant is poisonous, but in order to make the leaf less dangerous and more palatable for the caterpillar, it must first chew through the stalk to stop the flow of poison from the plant and make the leaf safe to eat. But, the caterpillar is also able to use what poison there is left in the leaf to make itself poisonous. Very clever, and actually it’s a strategy that I’ve heard of before and so I don’t think it’s that unusual.


The Golden Chrysalis of the Lucky Butterfly

But the extraordinary bit was yet to come.  I was able to film the caterpillar changing into a chrysalis and after a couple of weeks the butterfly emerged. In fact we had about a dozen adult butterflies which we then wanted to film taking their maiden flights into the forest.  (This, by the way is a happy/sad/happy story).  We carefully placed the butterfly on the remains of it’s chrysalis and waited for it to take off.  Sure enough, after a few minutes it did with a beautiful back flip. This was supposed to be the end of our happy story, but the luckless butterfly flew straight into the  web of a giant golden orb spider. The spider reacted  predictably. She  scurried up to the butterfly and started to wrap more golden threads around it. She paused for a moment and  seemed to take a little test bite and then immediately  she backed away. I was thinking, this is interesting, it’s logical that the adult butterfly is also poisonous so the spider probably won’t eat it. Our happy story became a sad one and now it’s looking a bit happier but it’ll probably have a sad ending because although the butterfly won’t get eaten by the giant spider, it’ll still die a lingering death of starvation and dehydration in the clutches of the golden orb. But then, just when I thought it was all over, the spider returned to the butterfly, gave it a little nibble again, and then painstakingly she cut the butterfly from her web one thread at a time and when she had finished she held the butterfly away from the web, released it from her clutches and away the lucky butterfly flew.  So a happy story after all and I think you’ll agree an incredible bit of behavior. I know it’s really cheesy, but as the butterfly flew away, she was almost immediately joined by a mate and together they followed a shaft of light through to the sun drenched canopy. 

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