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
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.
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!
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
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!
Morpho Achilles Insularis
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
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.