• April 18, 2016

These Butterfly Wings Are Beautiful for a Reason

Becky Harlan

Earth day is Friday, April 22nd, and Proof is celebrating all week. This is the first post in a five-day series about our planet.

Look closely at the Atlas moth above and you’ll see that one of these wings is not like the other. We don’t usually notice, but in many butterflies and moths, the top and the underside of the wing are visually quite different.

That’s because they serve different purposes. “It’s really quite shocking,” says National Geographic photographer Robert Clark. “On the bottom side, one of them looks like a brown, deadish leaf, and then on the top side it’s blue and orange. It’s the perfect example of camouflage.” The butterfly he’s describing is the Sumatran Indian leafwing, seen here.

Gif of an Indian leafwing butterfly opening and closing its wings
The Indian leafwing butterfly has the ability to blend in and hide from predators.

Lepidoptera (the order of insects that moths and butterflies belong to) have long intrigued Clark, drawing him to visit various insectariums and entomological collections whenever he gets the chance. It was on on a trip to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia that he first saw the massive Victorian-era butterfly collection of American naturalist Titian Ramsay Peale. What inspired him about the display was the construction of the “Peale Box,” which lets viewers see the specimens from above and below.

The case for Titan Ramsay Peale's butterfly collection, which allows the viewer to see both the top and bottom of the insects.
The case for Titan Ramsay Peale’s butterfly collection, which allows the viewer to see both the top and bottom of the insects.

He began thinking about how he could photographically display the dualistic beauty of butterfly and moth wings. His solution? Create composite photos that showcase the top and bottom of the wing side by side, so you get the whole view at once: top on the left, bottom on the right.

Picture of the jungle queen butterfly
The jungle queen butterfly, Stichophthalma fruhstorferi, inhabits a very specific range in Vietnam. The upper (left) and underside (right) of its wings resemble dead leaves. When the butterflies are resting on vegetation they close their wings. When flying, they zigzag near the vegetation to resemble falling leaves.

The variation in wings illustrates how different species have adapted to their environments. “The colors are for blending in with flowers and sexual attraction,” Clark explains. “Vibrancy equals health.” The more muted tones allow the insects to blend in with leaves or brush. Clark heralds the creatures as visual proof of natural selection, something he’s become kind of obsessed with documenting. (He has a photo book about evolution coming out this fall.)

Moths and butterflies share a common ancestor, but they’ve evolved into different species over time. And one of them certainly has a more highly regarded reputation than the other. “I never knew moths were that beautiful,” Clark admits. But studying these creatures helped him to cultivate a real appreciation. “I didn’t think about it, but day-flying moths are equally as fascinating and beautiful.”

Picture of a swallowtail moth, Lyssa zampa
This image of the swallowtail moth, Lyssa zampa, shows the top of its wing (left) and the underside (right).

His love of Lepidoptera has grown way beyond just photographing them. He’s also started to collect and mount beetles and butterflies on his own. “I took a mounting class here at a store in New York City,” he says. “I’ve come to being dorky sort of late in life.”

Can you blame him? When Clark waxes poetic about the majestic colors and contours of these wings, you know he’s onto something. They really are beautiful. Especially when you realize that all of the visual diversity exists for a reason—to help these creatures survive.

Picture of the madagascan sunset moth
The Madagascan sunset moth, Chrysiridia rhipheus​, is often called the most beautiful Lepidoptera in the world​. It’s bright colors indicate that it may be poisonous to predators.

“They’re very fragile,” he says. “Butterflies, frogs, reptiles—they’re kind of the frontline indicators of something that’s changing.” They’re like the canary in the coal mine as far as climate change is concerned.

Picture of a gynandromorph birdwing butterfly
Unlike the other photos in this post, this image is not a composite. This birdwing butterfly was born with male and female sexual parts. The two genders are easy to differentiate: the male on the left (the brighter color for sexual attraction) and the female on the right. There are many examples of gynandromorphs in other butterflies and moths. “I like to think of it as a naturally occurring composite,” says Clark.

Clark remembers growing up as a kid in western Kansas, right along the monarch’s migratory path, which is now threatened. “I remember going down there [to a muddy little tributary], and there would be millions of monarchs,” he says. “They would just land on us and cover us.”

Like a lot of kids, his seven-year-old daughter loves butterflies. He says she’s probably drawn a thousand pictures of them. And he hopes, despite changing times, to help her cultivate the same sort of appreciation that he feels for these magnificent creatures. “That’s one of the fun things about doing this [project] is telling her about it. I’ll say, ‘Lola, why does that butterfly look like a leaf?’ and she’ll say, ‘So it doesn’t get eaten.’”

See Robert Clark’s brilliant photographs of plumage on National Geographic, and follow more of his work on his website and Instagram.

There are 9 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Beatriz J L M Machado
    May 8, 2016

    Burterfly is Beautiful I Love all

  2. Dan
    April 27, 2016

    I’m glad there were moths in the article, since the headline says “butterflies” and has a pic of a moth.

  3. Karen
    April 25, 2016

    Interesting to see moths included – I foolishly don’t like moths and didn’t expect to see them but am enlightened by this story

  4. mb
    April 20, 2016

    The Peale box makes sense, because it solves a very real problem: If one only has a single specimen, it is not possible to view top and bottom simultaneously.
    There is no such restriction on printed images. You can easily view complete top and bottom views without destroying the beautiful symmetry of nature.

  5. Graham Eastwood
    April 20, 2016

    Fasinating Love the article brilliant work!!

  6. Iysis
    April 20, 2016

    They are soon cool can u make more for my class very soon thank you <3

  7. Madison
    April 20, 2016

    Butterfly….They are magnificent creatures, and there designs and looks is beautiful as well…..What else can you uncover?

  8. only UG degree
    April 20, 2016

    Those are pretty butterflies.

  9. Silas S
    April 20, 2016

    The fact that man is able to do his part in protecting these marvelous creatures proves the fact that these creatures aren’t products of Darwinism and Lamarckism, or in other words, self-defense. Evolution theory proposed by such men has its limits in the sense that a butterfly could never become a creeper. Genetic isolation could contribute to certain special physical traits but totally different species can never interbreed, a cat and a dog for example. When the gap extends, even a cat wouldn’t interbreed with a tiger, also belonging to the same “cat family!”

    Darwin’s observations on finches is not to be denied but believing everything without understanding the theoretical limitations is never going to shed light on nonspeculative real-world experiences.

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