Studying butterflies in Trinidad

As newlyweds, and with Peter tackling his first job as a petroleum geologist, we found ourselves dumped into a company house on an oilfield in Trinidad. The two-storey wooden bungalow was situated on a narrow winding road that snaked through virgin jungle, along the top of a ridge. The houses were placed a hundred yards or so apart. While waiting for the office bus, we could hardly help but notice the myriad butterflies flitting around the flowers.
No one could tell us much about them, and we could find no books on the subject so we naturally started to research these beautiful insects. Eventually we found an un-illustrated list of some 600 species and set out to find which insects fitted which of the names. Some of the stronger flyers are common right across the north of the continent, while others have developed into new subspecies, and are unique to the island. Butterflies eat a variety of foods. Some suck the nectar from flowers through their long proboscis and others prefer the juice of ripe fruit or the sap seeping from trees.

Soldat Martinique
Danais archippus

In the garden, the Soldat Martinique or Milkweed butterfly, was quite common. Their caterpillars feed off the milkweed which contains strong poisons and the butterflies themselves become poisonous to birds or lizards who try to eat them. Thus they feel perfectly safe flying slowly from flower to flower, out in the open.

Another butterfly that flies sedately around secure in the knowledge that no bird wants to eat it is the tiger. Yellow and black as with the wasp, are Mother Nature's warning signals, and they say 'eat me at your peril'. But there are lots of other species that mimic the tiger's colours to secure protection. The female of one sweet oil is painted in these colours, but the male has to fend for himself because if there are too many mimics the protection fails!

Mechanitis veritabilis

Sweet oil
Gonepteryx maerula

The Sweet Oil, as its name implies, is very tasty to eat if you are a bird and so it flies very fast and erratically, thereby obtaining a certain measure of safety from its predators. Once landed on a branch, with wings folded, it almost disappears because its underside blends so well with the surrounding foliage. With this in mind, some butterflies have developed very distinct markings which suit their preferred habitat. Thus we get the Bamboo Page which spends all its time flitting around the bamboo groves.

Bamboo page
Victorina steneles

One of the best known tropical butterflies is the Blue Emperor. Brooches and ornamental pictures have been produced using its iridescent blue wings. This belongs to the second group of butterflies because it feeds on fruit and sap from trees. It is hard to imagine but this beautiful creature also relishes newly dropped animal dung!
We frequently came across abandoned oil wells on our wanderings through the jungle. Many times the oil company would drill in a likely place only to find a 'dry hole'. However, the drilling crew were there long enough to leave behind the stones from the fruit they ate and when the jungle reclaimed the area, fruit trees such as mango would grow and flourish, providing good food for the creatures of the forest - including the butterflies. We noticed however that the males of the Blue Emperor appeared to provide a protective ring around the fallen fruit and as we approached, the alarmed male would fly low over the feeding females, almost dive-bombing them into rapid flight.

They are very curious butterflies and we discovered that if we placed a piece of blue paper in their flightpath, or if Peter wore a blue shirt, they would always divert from their line of flight in order to investigate. Betty took to making a quiche or savoury flan to take for our lunch, sandwiches being too dry to eat in such heat. To make them even 'moister' and help quench our thirst, she would cover them with finely chopped spinach mixed in a white sauce. We soon discovered that the Blue Emperor was particularly partial to this delicacy and dozens would scramble all over our hands, fighting to get their long probosces into our slice of pie. In fact, we had to literally push them to one side before taking a bite ourselves!

Blue emperor
Morpho Achilles Insularis

Cow shoemaker
Siderone marthesia

The Cow Shoemaker and the Grape Shoemaker are also fruit eaters. The underside of their wings mimic a dead leaf giving them perfect disguise as they sit amongst the fallen fruit under the tree.
When Betty dumped at the bottom of the garden, the already fermenting skin and seeds from some jam/jelly she had been making, we discovered how much butterflies love alcohol! They became so intoxicated that they would flap their wings in anger at our pushing finger as if to say: "this is my booze, you go find your own!"

Click here for the mystery of the Blue Shoemakers.

Grape shoemaker
Aganisthos odius

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