The Descent of Man – Day 80 of 151

Chapter XI: Insects, continued

Order Lepidoptera. (Butterflies And Moths)

  • Courtship of butterflies
  • Battles
  • Ticking noise
  • Colours common to both sexes, or more brilliant in the males
  • Examples
  • Not due to the direct action of the conditions of life
  • Colours adapted for protection
  • Colours of moths
  • Display
  • Perceptive powers of the Lepidoptera
  • Variability
  • Causes of the difference in colour between the males and females
  • Mimicry, female butterflies more brilliantly coloured than the males
  • Bright colours of caterpillars
  • Summary and concluding remarks on the secondary sexual characters of insects
  • Birds and insects compared

In this great Order the most interesting points for us are the differences in colour between the sexes of the same species, and between the distinct species of the same genus. Nearly the whole of the following chapter will be devoted to this subject; but I will first make a few remarks on one or two other points. Several males may often be seen pursuing and crowding round the same female. Their courtship appears to be a prolonged affair, for I have frequently watched one or more males pirouetting round a female until I was tired, without seeing the end of the courtship. Mr. A.G. Butler also informs me that he has several times watched a male courting a female for a full quarter of an hour; but she pertinaciously refused him, and at last settled on the ground and closed her wings, so as to escape from his addresses.

Although butterflies are weak and fragile creatures, they are pugnacious, and an emperor butterfly (1. Apatura Iris: ‘The Entomologist’s Weekly Intelligence,’ 1859, p. 139. For the Bornean Butterflies, see C. Collingwood, ‘Rambles of a Naturalist,’ 1868, p. 183.) has been captured with the tips of its wings broken from a conflict with another male. Mr. Collingwood, in speaking of the frequent battles between the butterflies of Borneo, says, “They whirl round each other with the greatest rapidity, and appear to be incited by the greatest ferocity.”

The Ageronia feronia makes a noise like that produced by a toothed wheel passing under a spring catch, and which can be heard at the distance of several yards: I noticed this sound at Rio de Janeiro, only when two of these butterflies were chasing each other in an irregular course, so that it is probably made during the courtship of the sexes. (2. See my ‘Journal of Researches,’ 1845, p. 33. Mr. Doubleday has detected (‘Proc. Ent. Soc.’ March 3, 1845, p. 123) a peculiar membranous sac at the base of the front wings, which is probably connected with the production of the sound. For the case of Thecophora, see ‘Zoological Record,’ 1869, p. 401. For Mr. Buchanan White’s observations, the Scottish Naturalist, July 1872, p. 214.)

Some moths also produce sounds; for instance, the males Theocophora fovea. On two occasions Mr. F. Buchanan White (3. ‘The Scottish Naturalist,’ July 1872, p. 213.) heard a sharp quick noise made by the male of Hylophila prasinana, and which he believes to be produced, as in Cicada, by an elastic membrane, furnished with a muscle. He quotes, also, Guenee, that Setina produces a sound like the ticking of a watch, apparently by the aid of “two large tympaniform vesicles, situated in the pectoral region”; and these “are much more developed in the male than in the female.” Hence the sound-producing organs in the Lepidoptera appear to stand in some relation with the sexual functions. I have not alluded to the well-known noise made by the Death’s Head Sphinx, for it is generally heard soon after the moth has emerged from its cocoon.

Giard has always observed that the musky odour, which is emitted by two species of Sphinx moths, is peculiar to the males (4. ‘Zoological Record,’ 1869, p. 347.); and in the higher classes we shall meet with many instances of the males alone being odoriferous.

Every one must have admired the extreme beauty of many butterflies and of some moths; and it may be asked, are their colours and diversified patterns the result of the direct action of the physical conditions to which these insects have been exposed, without any benefit being thus derived? Or have successive variations been accumulated and determined as a protection, or for some unknown purpose, or that one sex may be attractive to the other? And, again, what is the meaning of the colours being widely different in the males and females of certain species, and alike in the two sexes of other species of the same genus? Before attempting to answer these questions a body of facts must be given.

With our beautiful English butterflies, the admiral, peacock, and painted lady (Vanessae), as well as many others, the sexes are alike. This is also the case with the magnificent Heliconidae, and most of the Danaidae in the tropics. But in certain other tropical groups, and in some of our English butterflies, as the purple emperor, orange-tip, etc. (Apatura Iris and Anthocharis cardamines), the sexes differ either greatly or slightly in colour. No language suffices to describe the splendour of the males of some tropical species. Even within the same genus we often find species presenting extraordinary differences between the sexes, whilst others have their sexes closely alike. Thus in the South American genus Epicalia, Mr. Bates, to whom I am indebted for most of the following facts, and for looking over this whole discussion, informs me that he knows twelve species, the two sexes of which haunt the same stations (and this is not always the case with butterflies), and which, therefore, cannot have been differently affected by external conditions. (5. See also Mr. Bates’s paper in ‘Proc. Ent. Soc. of Philadelphia,’ 1865, p. 206. Also Mr. Wallace on the same subject, in regard to Diadema, in ‘Transactions, Entomological Society of London,’ 1869, p. 278.) In nine of these twelve species the males rank amongst the most brilliant of all butterflies, and differ so greatly from the comparatively plain females that they were formerly placed in distinct genera. The females of these nine species resemble each other in their general type of coloration; and they likewise resemble both sexes of the species in several allied genera found in various parts of the world. Hence we may infer that these nine species, and probably all the others of the genus, are descended from an ancestral form which was coloured in nearly the same manner. In the tenth species the female still retains the same general colouring, but the male resembles her, so that he is coloured in a much less gaudy and contrasted manner than the males of the previous species. In the eleventh and twelfth species, the females depart from the usual type, for they are gaily decorated almost like the males, but in a somewhat less degree. Hence in these two latter species the bright colours of the males seem to have been transferred to the females; whilst in the tenth species the male has either retained or recovered the plain colours of the female, as well as of the parent-form of the genus. The sexes in these three cases have thus been rendered nearly alike, though in an opposite manner. In the allied genus Eubagis, both sexes of some of the species are plain-coloured and nearly alike; whilst with the greater number the males are decorated with beautiful metallic tints in a diversified manner, and differ much from their females. The females throughout the genus retain the same general style of colouring, so that they resemble one another much more closely than they resemble their own males.

In the genus Papilio, all the species of the Aeneas group are remarkable for their conspicuous and strongly contrasted colours, and they illustrate the frequent tendency to gradation in the amount of difference between the sexes. In a few species, for instance in P. ascanius, the males and females are alike; in others the males are either a little brighter, or very much more superb than the females. The genus Junonia, allied to our Vanessae, offers a nearly parallel case, for although the sexes of most of the species resemble each other, and are destitute of rich colours, yet in certain species, as in J. oenone, the male is rather more bright-coloured than the female, and in a few (for instance J. andremiaja) the male is so different from the female that he might be mistaken for an entirely distinct species.

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