Blue morpho butterfly : life cycle, morphology, behavior & importance

Have you ever wondered what makes a blue morpho glitter and dazzle?

Why is the blue morpho so valuable?

Despite its palatability, what makes it a tough target to catch?

 

Brief introduction

The blue morpho is one of the world’s biggest butterflies, with wingspan ranging from three to eight inches. The morpho is also known as the Emperor. Its blue hue is like that of the sky.  Morphos have a very distinct, sluggish, bouncing flying style due to their large wing area in comparison to their body size. It is tasty to its predators yet tough to capture.  The striking blue hue shared by most Morpho species might be an example of Müllerian mimicry, also known as ‘pursuit aposematism.’ 

Blue morphos have two clubbed antennae, two pairs of fore and hind wings, three pairs of legs, and three body segments (head, thorax, and abdomen).

Distribution

Morpho butterflies are Neotropical butterflies that may be found from Mexico through Colombia, Central America, Paraguay, Brazil, Costa Rica, Venezuela, and even Thailand.

Habitat

Morphos may be found at elevations ranging from sea level to around 4,600 feet. Blue morphos are found in tropical and wet forests. Adults spend the most of their time with their wings folded on the forest floor and among the lower shrubs and trees of the understory.

Coloration and appearance

Blue morphos have two clubbed antennae, two pairs of fore and hind wings, three pairs of legs, and three body segments (head, thorax, and abdomen).

Many Morpho butterflies are shiny, gleaming blue and green with black border on the top wing surface. Color pigments are responsible for the appearance of an animal’s colour. Blue pigments cannot create the same intensity of colour as the morpho butterfly.

Visibility

The blue morpho butterfly is described by famed novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov as “shimmering light-blue mirrors.” The blue hue of the morpho is so vivid and sparkling that even pilots flying over the rainforests can see the butterflies bathing in the sun in the tree canopy. Some South American species may be seen with the naked eye from one kilometer afar.

Wing structure

Morpho butterflies’ lustrous hues are created by particular nanostructures on their wings. Its wings are covered with many tiny multilayered scales. These scales absorb all hues of light except blue, which is reflected back and results in morpho blue. This is an example of iridescence, which is an optical phenomena defined by the property of surfaces in which the tone varies depending on the angle from which the surface is seen.

The colours created change according to the angle of observation. The colour of morpho butterflies is unexpectedly consistent, presumably due to the scales’ tetrahedral structural arrangement, which is known as a ‘photonic crystal.’

Other species

Other morpho butterfly species are tawny orange or dark brown. Some species are completely white. A uncommon species, M. sulkowskyi. is mostly white but has a beautiful opalescent purple and cyan iridescence. Some Andean species are fragile and tiny.

Camouflage

The morpho’s wings have a drab brown hue on the ventral side. The brown ventral side of the morpho butterfly is revealed as it flips up its wings. The butterfly transforms into a brown leaf, offering camouflage against predators.

Optical deception

Because the brown hue of the morpho’s wings merges with the colour of the environment, it may appear as if the butterfly is disappearing for a brief while as it flaps its wings. The morpho reappears a split second later, glowing like a dazzling light. The morpho butterfly use this confusing method to deceive its opponents through optical deception.

Automimicry

Regardless, if the butterflies are discovered, they have a backup plan. The ventral side of the wings are adorned with two bronze-colored ‘ocelli,’ or eyes. Ocelli are present in all Morpho butterflies. It might be a type of automimicry in which a location on an animal’s body mimics an eye of another animal in order to confuse prospective predator or prey species, divert a predator’s attention away from the most susceptible body regions, or seem as an inedible or even deadly animal.

Sight

Morpho butterfly eyes are said to be UV light sensitive, allowing males to see one another from considerable distances.

Solitary

Morphos are diurnal creatures. Except during the mating season, Morphos normally live alone.

Feeding habits

The nutrition of the blue morpho alters with each stage of its lifespan.

Caterpillar

The caterpillar consumes a wide variety of plants, however the leaves of the pea family are preferred. Because caterpillars are frequently murdered by their natural predators, many morphos die before reaching the stage of a fully fledged butterfly. Because morpho caterpillars are cannibals, they may eat each other.

Adult

When a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, it can no longer chew and must instead sip its meal. Adults suck the juice of rotting fruit, the fluids of decomposing animals, tree sap, fungus, and nutrient-rich muck through a long, projecting mouthpart called a proboscis. Blue morphos use sensors on their legs to taste fruit. Their antennae serve as a combined tongue and nose, allowing them to “taste-smell” the air.[1]https://www.stlzoo.org/animals/abouttheanimals/invertebrates/insects/butterfliesandmoths/bluemorpho

Sexual dimorphism

Sexual dimorphism is shown in the blue morpho species. Only the males of some species are iridescent blue; the females are distractingly coloured brown and yellow. Females in other species are fairly iridescent but less blue than males. The males’ wings are larger and brighter than the females’. 

Life cycle

The splendor of the blue morpho is fleeting. Their lives are brief, lasting only 115 days. It indicates that they spend the majority of their time feeding and reproducing.

Finding a mate

Male morphos increase their visibility in the jungle by reflecting the bright, iridescent hue from an unusually wide angle. They are aggressive and pursue their opponents. The male’s vivid colour frightens any opponent that flies into his area. In the morning, males patrol the woodland streams and rivers.

To find a mate, males utilize patrolling and perching methods. Patrolling butterflies look for mates, whereas perching butterflies stay in one spot and wait for females to pass by. To attract female butterflies, male butterflies exude pheromones from their wings.

Courtship

Morpho courting takes place near feeding areas, and the birds will perch in the same spot every night. When a male morpho recognizes a female of his own species, he pursues her and engages in courting rituals. If the female accepts the male, they pair end to end and may proceed on a short courting flight, mating with their faces in opposite directions with their abdomens joined and remaining paired for 60 minutes or more, sometimes overnight.

Fertilization

The male gives the female his spermatophore, or sperm packet. Each egg that passes down the female’s egg-laying tube is subsequently fertilised by the sperms. Morpho butterflies go through a holometabolous metamorphism. Males die approximately 6-8 weeks after using all of their sperm in mating. Female butterflies lay all fertilised eggs on selected plants before dying.

Eggs

The eggs are light green and shaped like dew drops. Most of the 150 to 500 eggs are eaten by predators or succumb to parasites, and just a few survive to become butterflies.

Caterpillar

After around nine days, the eggs hatch into caterpillar larvae. The caterpillar is red-brown with lime-green streaks on its back and stinging hairs that can harm humans. As a protection strategy, certain caterpillars produce a rancid butter-like tasting fluid from eversible glands on the thorax when disturbed. Morpho larvae of all instars eat for half an hour at dawn and sunset. The caterpillar moults five times.

Pupa

The caterpillar wraps itself in a chrysalis to become a pupa. The bulbous chrysalis is a light to olive green protective encasement that emits an unpleasant, ultrasonic sound wave when touched. It dangles from the host plant’s stem or leaf. The chrysalis stage is the longest for an insect.

Adult

When pupation is complete, the mature butterfly emerges from its chrysalis, which is toxic to predators because of the poisons it has stored.[2]https://www.butterflyfarm.co.uk/attraction/media/a9123d1beed71c98eff53737b7509fd3/ButterflyLifeCycleLearningResourceStratfordButterflyFarm.pdf[3]https://sta.uwi.edu/fst/lifesciences/sites/default/files/lifesciences/documents/ogatt/Morpho_peleides%20-%20Morpho%20or%20Emperor%20Butterfly.pdf

Technical importance

The visual architecture of the Morpho butterfly has attracted humans for generations. Their wings’ lamellate structure has been explored as a model for the development of dye-free paints, biomimetic materials, and anti-counterfeit technology used in banknotes.

Threats

Blue morphos are gravely endangered due to tropical forest degradation and habitat fragmentation. Humans pose a direct threat to this magnificent species since painters and collectors have long want to catch and display them. Its wings are even utilised to make jewellery, ceremonial masks, and woodworking inlay. A large number of live specimens are shipped to be displayed in butterfly homes. Unfortunately, because to their erratic flying style and size, their wings are frequently broken in captivity.

Predators

Royal flycatchers, jacamars, and other insectivorous birds, frogs, and reptiles are among its natural predators. They sway in the air and are simple to capture.[4]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morpho[5]https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdf/IN/IN110100.pdf[6]https://www.physast.uga.edu/~zhaoy/Butterfly.pdf

Conclusion

The morpho butterfly is a marvel in and of itself. It has piqued man’s interest because to its short beauty, rich colour, and tremendous wing span. It exploits visual trickery to fool its opponents. It is the most beautiful bug in the globe. 

Reviewed by: 
Dr. Muhammad Tahir Ph.D. (PU) 
Post Doctorate 
American Museum of Natural History, New York, USA 

References

References
1https://www.stlzoo.org/animals/abouttheanimals/invertebrates/insects/butterfliesandmoths/bluemorpho
2https://www.butterflyfarm.co.uk/attraction/media/a9123d1beed71c98eff53737b7509fd3/ButterflyLifeCycleLearningResourceStratfordButterflyFarm.pdf
3https://sta.uwi.edu/fst/lifesciences/sites/default/files/lifesciences/documents/ogatt/Morpho_peleides%20-%20Morpho%20or%20Emperor%20Butterfly.pdf
4https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morpho
5https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdf/IN/IN110100.pdf
6https://www.physast.uga.edu/~zhaoy/Butterfly.pdf
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