Not all morphos are blue: Introducing Morpho theseus

Pilpintuwasi’s butterfly farm breeds 17 different species of butterfly including three species from the genera Morpho: the iconic Morpho Menelaus, Morpho Patroclus (a subspecies of the Morpho Achilles) and finally Morpho theseus.

Butterflies have a very complex life which is composed of four stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and butterfly. In total, from egg until death, their lifespan lasts on average 4-5 months however as a butterfly they will live only a couple of weeks.

Within the farm we have created a mini eco-system for our 17 different butterfly species. Replicating their natural environment was a laborious task as each different butterfly species uses different host plants on which to lay their eggs. When the fertilized eggs are laid on their host plant the resident worker Humberto and the trained volunteers collect them before any nasty parasites can infect them by laying their own egg inside. Then they are taken into the hatchery where they will be cared for by Humberto during their many months as a caterpillar. The egg of the Morpho theseus appears like a dew drop on the leaf and it takes a trained eye to be able to spot it.

After some days little caterpillars will emerge from the eggs and proceed to eat the egg shell for energy. Then they are ready to be put onto their host plant where they will begin to feed and will continue to do so for many months! The Morpho theseus caterpillars congregate in groups and use bright red and yellow colours to appear toxic in order to deter predators and they are covered in hairs which are irritants for human skin.

The next stage is that of the pupa. The caterpillar will look for a suitable stem from which to hang and then a chemical reaction will initiate the change in the caterpillar’s body. It will seal the mouth and the anus and use the outer skin to form the pupa or the chrysalis. The chrysalis of the Morpho theseus is a jade coloured bud like structure. Within the chrysalis, the caterpillar will break down all its cells and restructure them to form a new organism: the butterfly. This process lasts a few weeks. When ready to hatch, the chrysalis will become a layer of skin to be molted and the dark wings of the butterfly are visible within. Hatching is very quick but preparation to fly takes hours as the butterfly’s wings are weak to begin with.

When the wings stretch to their full size the adult butterfly is transported into the butterfly house to start its short life. It needs to feed: the main food sources are fermenting fruits, nectar and mineral salts which it can find in the soil. Butterflies use a proboscis (like a straw) to suck up these different food sources which is rolled up when not in use. They will also look for a mate and once found they will begin an intricate courtship dance which can last for 2 hours. But it is worth the trouble because if the candidate is successful they will mate for up to 24 hours.

Within the butterfly farm the butterflies are protected from many predators such as birds, insectivorous amphibians and reptiles and so will live out their lives until old age. However, in the wild they need to defend themselves. The Morpho theseus have a clever disguise. They, like many in the genera, have eye like markings on the underside of their wings which deceive their predators by resembling the eye of another animal, appearing inedible or dangerous or functioning as a lure to draw predator’s attention away from the most vulnerable body parts. However, unlike many of their Morpho counterparts the Morpho theseus is mostly brown with orange spots and a tinge of blue in the center of their wings. They are also distinguished by a teeth edged shape on the bottom of their wings.

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