Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Butterflies are free

August is Museum Month in New Orleans - members of participating museums get free admission for themselves and a guest at other participating museums.

I'm a member at three local museums, so this was a fun opportunity to visit other places. Sunday, my friend Becky and I went to the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium - a museum devoted to insects and their relatives.

Leaf cutter ants marching into the nest

This is a very kid-friendly museum, and the hallways and exhibits were full of children squealing horror at the giant cockroaches and African millipedes that skittered, squirmed or wiggled in glass cases in the hallway.

An assortment of iridescent scarab beetles

But we were there for the Butterfly Garden, so we took a short cut through the gift shop. You pass into the Garden through a double set of doors designed to prevent butterflies from escaping.  It's odd at first to see butterflies fluttering through this room which is part of the Old Custom House, just a large room in a building, with regular windows that look out on the street. There are trees and flowers and a water pool with a bridge. The plants are artificial, though; faded and a little dusty, the petals and leaves are fabric and plastic. It made me wonder what life must be for these butterflies, never touching real leaves, never sucking real nectar from the blossoms.

Butterfly on fake leaves
The butterflies flittered around us, coming close to our faces, which is a little unsettling at first. They are so fast and emphemeral in motion that it is hard to really see them.

"Oh, look," said Becky. "A blue morpho." Among the smaller black and orange fritillaries flashed the broad, startling-blue wings of a Morpho peleides, or blue morpho butterfly. These South American beauties were prized by collectors back in the 19th century for the beautiful color of their wings. It moved so fast and darted about so erratically I couldn't focus on it.

Becky gasped as one butterfly clung to her tunic. Then another walked on her arm, probing the surface of her with his proboscis. "It felt weird," she said later, "but I didn't want to touch it and damage its wings."

Another one alit on the toe of her shoe, like some kind of fantastic ornament or bow.

I noticed a large butterfly clinging to some fake iris flowers, its drab brown wings folded shut, and then those wings quivered briefly to reveal the celestial blue reverse. And then I saw the informational signage that showed how the underside of the morpho butterfly's wings are brown with eye-like spots. They were everywhere, only in disguise!
A blue morpho at rest
The blue color of a morpho butterfly is not pigment at all - their wings are covered with tiny scales that diffract and bend the light, reflecting the blue end of the spectrum. They are not "blue" at all; it is an illusion. It's said that they confound their predators because as they fly, their wings appear first brown and then disappear against the blue of the sky.

Just opening its wings
It was almost impossible to get a clear photo of these elusive butterflies, but the room was full of them. Here's one alighting on the sleeve of a lady sitting on a bench:

Shapeshifter butterflies! I can get into that.


Anonymous said...

We saw one of the blue butterflies this morning in our Zoo garden but didn't know what kind it was. Thanks for the photos and the identification.

Ellen Bloom said...

Yeah, sure, the butterflies are great, but what kind of sandals is Becky wearing? I LOVE that design! Inquiring minds NEED to know! E-mail me, please: ellblo@aol.com
THANKS, Glennis!