NOVEMBER
2009

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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11-12-09

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Magnificent Morphos have Mysterious Moniker

The morpho butterflies are probably one of the most recognizable of all the different kinds of butterflies. The morphos are large butterflies, some with wingspans of nearly 8 inches, and many are brilliant blue or green in color. These butterflies are native to tropical regions of Latin America from Mexico to Colombia. It is there that the morphos can be seen flitting leisurely through the high canopy of the rainforest.

But even if you haven't had the opportunity to visit a rainforest and see wild morphos flapping and gliding about in their native haunts, you have probably seen these butterflies as decorations. Yes, the bright, vibrant colors and the large size of these butterflies have made them the darlings of the insect set for artists and decorators.

Over 100 years ago, native peoples living along the Rio Negro River in Brazil used wings of the morpho butterflies to embellish ceremonial masks. In more modern times, mounted specimens of morphos have been used to create jewelry, inlay in woodworking or to create framed wall displays. Sharp-eyed observers might have noticed that such works of art contained morphos without abdomens. The abdomen of the insect had been removed to prevent its oily contents from seeping over the wings and ruining the color.

Interest in using the morphos to create artistic renderings has resulted in extensive collection of the insects in the wild, even though these butterflies are not always of good quality. Such field collection and destruction of breeding habitat have reduced wild populations of some species of morpho butterflies. Consequently, collection of these butterflies is no longer legal in many areas. But the demand for morpho butterflies for use in art renderings and live butterfly exhibits is very high. To supply that market, the morphos are now produced on butterfly farms.

One of the remarkable aspects of the color exhibited by the morpho butterflies is that the color is not due to pigmentation. The color is the result of iridescence, the reflection of light in different wavelengths. That means that the color of a wing might change with wing movement or the angle of sight of the viewer. It also means that the brilliant color does not fade, a great attribute for long-lasting art!

So why are these butterflies called morphos? All insects and other animals and plants that have been discovered are given two-word scientific names. Most scientific names are based on Greek or Latin roots and are cumbersome for people to use. So common names are used instead of the scientific name in everyday conversation and most reflect characteristics or behavior of the animal. Names such as eight-spotted cucumber beetle or tiger swallowtail butterfly for example. In the case of the morpho butterflies, the common name is based on part of the scientific name, in this case the genus.

The genus name morpho is credited to Fabricius who has been called the first outstanding insect taxonomist. Exactly how Fabricius settled on morpho in 1808 as the generic name for this group of butterflies is unclear. However, morpho is a Latin word based on the Greek combining term morph that meant form. Morpho was also used as an epithet of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.

From this it appears that Fabricius might have been of a mindset to continue the Greek and Roman god theme, which was apparent in the species names of the group of butterflies that he was including in the new genus morpho. Most of the names for the described species with which Fabricius was dealing with were based on mythological characters. For example, species names of the morphos included Diana the Roman goddess of the hunt, Patroclus of Trojan War fame, Peleides, the father of Achilles, and Helena, better known as Helen of Troy.

The species names of the morpho butterflies are indeed a Who's Who list of gods and goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology. Such names might just be appropriate for some of the most beautiful butterflies in the world.

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox