Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







On The Wings Of Lepidoptera

In many people's eyes, some of the most beautiful creatures on earth are butterflies and moths. These insects are considered beautiful partially because they are delicate and graceful. But the beauty of butterflies and moths is due mostly to the bright color patterns incorporated into their wings.

Sometimes the patterns help protect the insect from predators. The design on the wings might resemble the bark of a tree or even look like beams of light shining down toward the forest floor. This would help the insect blend into the environment and make it more difficult to see.

Some patterns are used to startle predators. That is the function of eye spots found on the wings of some butterflies and moths. These eye spots are so realistic that a potential predator may be scared away thinking the eyes belong to some fearsome owl. So realistic are the eyespots on some moths that they even look as though light is reflecting from the pupil of the fake eye.

Recently, scientists have suggested that the pattern on the wings of some butterflies resemble the shape of caterpillars. The pattern includes spots down the side that look like the breathing holes of caterpillars. Such a pattern may function to direct the attack of an insect-eating predator, such as a bird, toward the false larvae and away from the body of the butterfly.

The uniqueness of the patterns on the wings of Lepidoptera was captured by nature photographer Kjell Sandved. Sandved is a photographer for the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. He created an insect alphabet based on letters on the wings of butterflies. It wasn't an easy task to find all of the alphabet on the wings of these beautiful insects. He looked for 15 years and still lacked a G. He finally discovered the G on the hind wing of a bush-footed butterfly in Ghana. Since then, he has discovered the elusive G on an Ecuadorian Danaid and a Peruvian Nymphalid.

Sandved also has photographed butterfly wings that contain all the numerals. He has developed a great appreciation for butterflies and moths and is concerned about the loss of butterfly habitat that seems to be associated with human progress. You might say Kjell Sandved is very enthusiastic about butterflies. So it is not surprising that in 1992, when the theme of the National Meeting of the Entomological Society of America was "Enthusiasm," Sandved supplied photographs to depict the theme. The letters, of course, were from the wings of butterflies!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann