In the Florida Museum of Natural History's butterfly and moth collection, every cabinet contains a world of wonder, and each drawer holds a beautiful story. I was lucky enough to discover a few this weekend.
I was in Gainesville, Florida over the past few days attending the National Association of Science Writers annual meeting, which was great in its own right. While there on the University of Florida campus, I was lucky enough to be invited on a behind-the-scenes tour of their legendary Lepidoptera collection with curator Andy Warren, insect explorer Phil Torres, and photographer-of-tiny-things Jeff Cremer.
Phil and Jeff brought along a microscope macro lens, and we shot lots of photos of wing scales with it. If they post those up, I’ll be sure to let you know. Here’s a little tour of my favorite finds (from top):
- I’ve featured the folded dead leaf illusion moth Uropiya meticulodina before, but seeing it in person was stunning. It has evolved a camouflage color scheme involving shadows, perspective and mimicking not only another species, but another domain of life. Breathtaking example of the power of evolution.
- Macrocilix maia is another example of intricate pattern evolution that you’ve seen on IOTBS before, displaying a pattern that looks like two flies feeding on bird poop, down to red eyes, extended legs, and a glint of light off the back. This moth, and the leaf-mimic above, create for me an existential crisis of science: I understand that they evolved by the power of natural selection, but when I try to imagine the sequence of events that made them what they are today, my brain sort of falls apart.
- We got to see a century-old box of British butterflies, each example of species differing by perhaps a single spot, meticulously mounted with truly imperial organization.
- Those strings of cocoons are an example of cultural convergent evolution. They are dance rattles, worn around the ankles, each one a dried cocoon filled with a pebble. These ceremonial decorations were independently devised by cultures in Africa and the Americas, an ocean apart!
- No string of letters and words can do justice to the iridescent wonder that is the Madagascar sunset moth. The greens, blues and oranges, when viewed up close, explode into pixelated scales of purple and yellow, dotted with a rainbow of fluorescents. You neeeeeed to head over to Smarter Every Day and watch Destin’s episode about butterfly scales to appreciate this flying rainbow.
- Continents apart, two different species of butterfly (among many more) evolved the ability to mimic dead leaves. Dead decomposing leaves. They even lose patches of tissue in their wings, leaving holes just like a real dead leaf has!
One hour in there and it was obvious why people like Vladimir Nabokov fell in love with butterflies and moths. Any longer than that and I might never have made it out.
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