Posted tagged ‘moths’

Scaly-winged creatures!

9 December 2009

Post 1 of ‘Learning about Lepidoptera’  Series!

Elaborate colours and arrangements of scales on the wings of butterflies and moths permit beautiful patterns.

If you look at the dazzling colours of butterflies and moths, the last thing that will probably come to your mind, is that its wings are completely covered by scales! Not scales as in the case of reptiles such as snakes or crocodiles, but scales nevertheless!

In fact, the pre-eminent biological characteristic of the group of insects we know as ‘butterflies and moths’ is precisely this – scaly wings! And it is from this feature that the scientific name for this order of insects comes!

‘Lepidos’ or λεπίδος means ‘scale’ and ‘pteron’ or πτερόν means ‘wing’ in Ancient Greek!

Looking closely at the wing, one can see the scales!

Scales cover not only the wings of butterflies and moths! They are also found on the head, body and feet of many moths and butterflies.

The series of images below will help you realise why the scales play so important a role in classifying and naming this order of insects.

Lepidoptera scales are blade-shaped, loosely attached and come off easily without harming the insect.

Lets now magnify some scales and see them very close up! Click on each image to enjoy nature’s fine architecture.

First magnification - Laid like overlapping tiles on a roof. Scales improve the aerodynamic lift of butterflywings.

Second magnification - Each scale can be seen as having ragged edges and intricately structured upper surface.

Third magnification - the long longitudinal ridges can be seen to be connected with very fine ribs. The cuticle contains pigments such as melanins which give blacks and browns. Whites and yellows are usually due to excretory deposits.

Fourth magnification - The upper surface of a scale is jagged and perforate. Blue, green and iridescence is due to the coherent scattering of light by this micro-structure.

Scales cover most parts of the head, legs, body and organs of a butterfly also. A butterfly head magnified to show the scales on the face and proboscis.

Scales not only give beautiful patterns but beautiful variations on basic patterns to different species.

A page from Adalbert Sietz's MacroLepidoptera of the World, published from 1907 to 1935 in 16 volumes.

Image credits : Wikimedia Commons

  1. Common Tortoise shell butterflyBöhringer Friedrich.
  2. Lepidoptera Wing – Karol Kin.
  3. Loose butterfly scales – Jan Homann.
  4. Scanning Electron Micrographs of scales (1 to 4) – SecretDisc. Click the image to go to its Wikimedia Commons source page.
  5. Lepidoptera head with tongueDartmouth College Electron Microscope Facility.
  6. Plate from ‘MacroLepidoptera of the World‘ – Adalbert Seitz.
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A Paris Peacock by the Chel River

11 May 2007

Chel River bridge

The most beautiful approach to Kalimpong is not via the direct route from Siliguri via Sevoke and Teesta, but by a quaint winding hill road from Damdim to the newly emerging hillstation of Labha and the sleepy hamlet of Algarah which overlooks Kalimpong from the ridgetop to the NorthEast. We chose this backdoor access for getting to Kalimpong – our first stop enroute to North Sikkim.

Now one doesnt really need to go to Kalimpong to go to North Sikkim but a night halt is preferable because of the long journey from Binnaguri. Kalimpong is more conveniently placed than Gangtok which would require an extra day or more and require you to head much further East than you need. You get the same kind of atmosphere, much better scenic beauty enroute, a shorter trip, and for those interested in plants, many nurseries growing exotic plants. Gangtok has a charm and appeal of its own and is best visited separately, perhaps in combination with the border pass of Nathu La.

For that, one goes halfway towards Tiger bridge till Damdim,  and then you turn right or Northwards. You now leave behind the tea garden, betel-nut, fish-pond and jute type of atmosphere prevalent in the lowlands of the Siliguri corridor. Almost immediately, you pass through Gorubatthan and come to the scenic hamlet of Paparkheti. Paparkheti gives you that old world feeling one associates with sleepy forgotten hill stations. Now, the villages are of Gurkha and Lepcha people living in quaint bamboo houses on stilts. These houses are embellished by masses of wild and cultivated flowers in pots, small strips of garden and in their verandahs. You feel really good, and often the sweet smell of a honeysuckle is encountered as you slow down on a turn. The ubiquitous Tea gardens still co-exists but here they cling to dizzying slopes which have stands of cardamom that give them an exotic look. Far below, a river flows with old-fashioned Bailey bridges to take people to the other side. Wooden log huts now can be seen amidst colourful patches of garden. You cross the Chel river, (actually a fast-flowing rocky stream) by an RCC bridge next to a huge boulder used locally for rappelling. And now you are in fabulous butterfly country.

Spot PuffinJust 500 metres ahead of the Chel river is a small grocery-cum-tea stall-cum-hardware store of the kind found in the hills. A year ago, I had stopped here for a cup of tea enroute to Rhenok.  It borders another mountain stream which is crossed by a small RCC bridge just adjacent to the store. The trees on both sides are very high here, the sun alighting the uppermost branches – high above butterflies can be seen flying about – I wonder what they are? A white which is leisurely opening and closing its wings in the shade turns out to be a Spot Puffin. On the roadside, Common Sailers pose still as statues with wings placed flat.

As I waited for the tea to be prepared, my eyes were suddenly dazzled by a blue and black butterfly flying high in the trees opposite. It was a Peacock, and my first thought was ‘Is this butterfly beautiful, or what?’.  Strong swift wingstrokes across the hillside brought it next to the stream flowing across the road, where it hovered with a rhythmic slow wingbeat and dipped  its large black proboscis into the water. For a few minutes, it kept weaving between the same puddles back and forth, permitting some photography.

Paris Peacock 1
Paris Peacock2The four Himalayan species of Papilio Peacocks are amongst the most colourful butterflies in India. The butterfly hypnotises you into just admiring its bues, greens and maroon-purple peacock-eyes. The mind struggles to understand the pattern of these shimmering colours which keep changing location as the butterfly moves. This is why I find it so difficult to recognise the exact species of Peacock butterfly on the wings. From the photographs I later identified it as a Paris Peacock.

Paris peacock 3On the wing, the butterfly gives different visual treat than it does as a specimen, in the hand or as a photograph. The forewings slide easily over the bright blue patch on its hindwings. The butterfly is instantly transformed into something relatively nondescript and you need to refocus to discern the creature once more. Should the butterfly halt a little longer, more details emerge for appreciation….the beautiful spatulate tails, the green glitter spangle on its wings, a thin green band on the upper forewing which tapers towards the apex. The tragedy with having such beautiful butterflies is, that you can never get enough of them – you see them too infrequently, and you dont get enough time with them when you do.

This place has other dainties too. I wander further away from the roadside towards an abandoned bridge site. A delicate blue damselfly perched on a nettle allows me to approach quite close to admire its beauty.

Damsel fly

The rippling brook invites you by its musical babbling. Suddenly I saw a small white bird bobbing on one of the stones in midstream – it was a Forktail. Tantalisingly, it would allow me to approach close but fly off out of sight a few meters away further upstream. I could glimpse it through the fronds of fern, but by the time I laboured to get in view, it was off again.

Yellow MothA beautiful fat yellow moth is in front of me on an Ageratum bush. It allows me to pick it up and gently examine it. It has a beautiful red upper abdomen which is completely hidden by the wings. Its forelegs are partly red and partly black. It exudes a few yellow drops on my fingers as I place it back unharmed on the leaves. Later, I learn that the moth belongs to the Spilosoma genus of Arctiidae, the Tiger Moth family.

All good things must come to an end – its time to be off again with a memory of Peacocks – on to Labha, Algarah and Kalimpong.
Yellow Moth 2