On our Central American cruise as we visit Costa Rica and Panama, we can expect to see butterflies daily, in all habitats from tropical dry forests, tropical moist forests, and rainforests. On our Costa Rica and Panama cruise extensions up into the cloud forests of Monteverde, another abundance of these colorful and fascinating insects are seen in yet another, different ecosystem.
Butterflies are insects and as such possess six legs and three body segments: head, thorax and abdomen. On the head are the antennae, eyes, and proboscis. Antennae are used for olfactory sensation and balance in flight; even if the wings are damaged a butterfly will continue to be able to fly and navigate due to the sense of balance afforded them by their antennae. Female butterflies release pheromones into the air and antennae of males of many species can detect the pheromones from as far away as two kilometers (over a mile) and some up to five kilometers (about three miles) distant. Taking advantage of the air currents above rainforests to disperse and catch the attracting pheromones, butterflies are often found high in the canopy of rainforests or in open forest gaps.
The eyes of butterflies are compound, consisting of thousands of hexagonal shaped “omatidea” (minuscule sensors) and can see in virtually every direction simultaneously. Butterflies cannot focus very well but are sensitive to the three most basic features of vision: light (they can distinguish night from day);color (along a very narrow band of the light spectrum); and motion (try catching one).
Their feeding mechanism is a long double barreled tube called a proboscis and they feed exclusively on liquids. The preferred diets will vary considerably depending upon the species and include nectar of flowers, fruit, mud, cow dung, water, and tree sap.
The thorax connects the butterflies' six legs and four wings and include tight membranes which function as the butterfly's ears. In the abdomen are located the reproductive, respiratory, circulatory, and digestive systems for the liquid diet of butterflies. The circulatory system is relatively simple with the heart a pump attached to a long tube that extends from the abdomen to the head. In a butterfly, there is no transportation of oxygen in the blood. Butterflies instead have valves called spiracles along either side of their bodies. Some of these spiracles, located mostly along the abdomen, allow oxygen to enter while others exhale carbon dioxide.
A typical female butterfly will lay about 100 eggs in her lifetime. Some species lay eggs in clusters, others individually. Of the 100 or so eggs, only two percent should be expected to survive, the high mortality rate due to climatic conditions, diseases, and predators.
The larval stage consists of an exoskeleton that is shed periodically. Virtually all larvae molt four times, each time forming a new "instar" (larval stage of development). At the fifth instar it will have reached its full size and will form the prepupa. When the larva reaches full size it stops eating, empties its stomach (which almost disappears) because as an adult it only drinks small amounts of liquid. The larval stage is the only stage of butterfly development where the organism actually grows (phenomenally so). If a normal seven pound human baby were to grow at the same rate, in just one short month it would be the size of a London double decker bus!
Eggs are laid on the leaves and stems of particular host plants which are subsequently eaten by the larvae caterpillars. The close tie between butterflies and their host species of plants is yet another example of the intrinsic co-dependency of organisms in the environment.
Butterfly predators are many and varied, including ants, spiders, wasps, parasitic wasps and flies, birds, rats, toads, lizards, praying mantis, snakes, and monkeys. Butterflies have developed many ways to protect themselves from predatation, a primary method is being foul-tasting (by absorption of toxins taken from plants during feeding) or looking like a toxic species (calling mimicry). Cryptic coloration is also used by many species, as blending into the background is an effective method of avoiding discovery by predators.
Central Panama is home to over 400 species of tropical butterflies and on our Central America cruise we can expect to see individuals from groups such as morphos, owl-eyes, glassywings, sulphurs, oranges, swallowtails, skippers, and longtails.
Costa Rica, in turn, is unusually blessed by the diversity of it's butterflies and of the around 20,000 known butterfly species worldwide, about 1,000 or five percent can be found in Costa Rica, found from the Pacific and Atlantic shores into the high-altitude cloud forests and sub-alpine environments.
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