OWL BUTTERFLY - A BUTTERFLY IN DISGUISE
Written by Cyril Brass

 I sensed something was watching from a nearby branch. A creature’s eye was staring at me. I stepped forward cautiously not to scare off this unknown creature.  I was focused more on getting a good photograph of this mystery creature with the evil eye, than concerning myself of any potential danger this animal possessed.   Was this the eye of a deadly predator?  Or was this the eye of an Owl?  Or was it a …… butterfly? 

Yes, it was an Owl Butterfly so appropriately named with the fake eye-spots on the butterfly’s wing. With large distinctive eye-spot markings on the undersides of each of the hind wings, the eyes are mistaken for the eyes of an owl.  Plus the overall markings and shades of the wings resemble feathers and a face of an owl. 

There are two theories as to why this tropical butterfly possesses the fake eyes on its wings.  

The first theory is the fake eyes are used as a defence mechanism to startle would be predators.  The butterfly moves its wings flashing the “eyes” at the predator to startle it enabling the butterfly to escape.  Any predator should be discouraged from attacking something with such apparently large eyes on chance that there maybe an equally large body attached.   What a disguise, appearing to be an owl to protect itself from being eaten.  

The second theory for the large eye-spot is a diversion tactic or decoy away from the vulnerable body parts of the tasty Owl Butterfly.  It misdirects the attacker away from the creature’s vital parts to less important parts like their wings.  I have seen several Owl Butterflies with big chunks of their wings missing, still enabling them to fly and survive.  

The Owl Butterfly is the largest butterfly species living in the tropical rainforests within Central America and South America.  Even though it is one of the largest butterflies in the world with a wing span up to 15 centimeters (6 inches), it doesn’t match the largest butterfly found in Papua New Guinea reaching up to 30 centimeters (12 inches).  

There must be two types of vegetation in order for the Owl Butterfly to survive in a particular habitat.  There must be a host or food plant for the larvae to feed off of to grow. And there must be nectar plants and fruit for the adults to consume nutrients. Without the right plants they would not survive in an area.  

The caterpillars of the Owl Butterfly feed only on plants in the banana family such as heliconia, plantain and banana.  The larvae have incredible appetites devouring leaves in great quantities resulting in a quick growing phase to the size of 12-15 centimeters (5-6 inches.   During this larvae stage, they are an “eating machine” as they eat, and eat and eat the leaves of the plants from where they hatched. 

Their freakish appearance is somewhat alien looking with a spiked head, fleshy projections along the back and forked tail. Yet such a bizarre looking caterpillar evolves into a beautifully coloured butterfly.  

The adults do not eat the plants from where they transformed from egg to caterpillar.  Instead they feed on the sweet juices of rotting fruit and the tasty nectar of blossoming flowers.  

These particular butterflies are reasonably easy to photograph.  Due to their size and the owl eye-spots they are much easier to spot on tree trunks, leaves and flowers.  They are most active at dawn and at dusk.  Their days are spent resting, camouflaged on the tree trunks and branches.  

As well, they are noticeable during flight allowing you to follow (if possible in the rainforest) their irregular flight pattern until they come to rest. They zig then zag so effortlessly and peacefully through the tropical air.   

It’s fascinating to learn and see how nature works in such unusual and mysterious ways.  

Adaptation to its natural surroundings is crucial to some of the most delicate creatures on this planet. The Owl butterfly is no exception.   With no razor sharp teeth to bite back with, no claws to scratch with, no poison toxins to emit, or no fowl smell to spew into the air, this creature gives an appearance looking like something more fierce and scary than it actually is. 

Camouflage is vital to its survival as well.  It is life saving for the Owl Butterfly to blend into its surroundings with its tree bark like colors, patterns and markings.   

 

The Owl Butterfly ….. one of the largest species in the world ……. a well camouflaged critter  ………..  a butterfly in disguise.

 

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