I found these butterflies and moths recently over a period of three days at a tourism lodge in the Tambopata National Reserve, southeastern Peru. I didn’t kill them; part of the lodge was under construction and the insects flew into the open rooms and were trapped under the ceilings. This collection is just a fraction of the total number that succumbed during our stay. The carnage was upsetting, but I was consoled by the fact butterflies have naturally short life spans, from just a week or two to under a year, and the cause of premature death would be temporary.
One of every five species of butterflies in the world is found in Peru and Tambopata alone boasts a jaw dropping 1256 species, compared to 59 in the whole of the UK. The diversity in colours, shapes, and sizes is astonishing. I was surprised to learn that one of the most exotic in my collection, the striped, iridescent green and black swallowtail look-alike (the only upside down specimen in the photo, towards bottom left), is in fact a diurnal moth, Urania leilus. And did you know butterfly wings are actually transparent? Those colours and patterns are created by miniature scales that reflect light and look like dust on one’s fingertips after handling the wings.
Perennial favourites and among the largest of butterflies are the electric blue morpho species. Nabokov, author of the infamous Lolita, described them as “shimmering light-blue mirrors.” The one cupped in my daughter’s hands was very much alive and we released it into the forest after taking the photo. It’s lilting, winking flight, surely a ploy to confuse hungry birds, made me consider it as a character for a fairy tale. But would it be a guardian angel (too predictable and cliché) or a fickle sprite, leading small children astray? Hm... more interesting.
The reverse or ventral sides of a morpho’s wings are brown and display two glaring eyespots with giant pupils. These are said to fool potential predators into thinking the insect is something else altogether, something large, highly alert, and dangerous. Or perhaps they serve to draw an attack away from more vital parts of the morpho’s body.
When I had finished taking my photo of the dead butterflies, using my husband’s khaki shirt as a background, my daughter and I gently carried the shirt to the window and tipped the delicate corpses out into the forest from which they had emerged. For a brief moment, they seemed to come alive once more, drifting on stiff wings in the breeze.