The Descent of Man – Day 81 of 151

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.

Another striking case was pointed out to me in the British Museum by Mr. A. Butler, namely, one of the tropical American Theclae, in which both sexes are nearly alike and wonderfully splendid; in another species the male is coloured in a similarly gorgeous manner, whilst the whole upper surface of the female is of a dull uniform brown. Our common little English blue butterflies of the genus Lycaena, illustrate the various differences in colour between the sexes, almost as well, though not in so striking a manner, as the above exotic genera. In Lycaena agestis both sexes have wings of a brown colour, bordered with small ocellated orange spots, and are thus alike. In L. oegon the wings of the males are of a fine blue, bordered with black, whilst those of the female are brown, with a similar border, closely resembling the wings of L. agestis. Lastly, in L. arion both sexes are of a blue colour and are very like, though in the female the edges of the wings are rather duskier, with the black spots plainer; and in a bright blue Indian species both sexes are still more alike.

I have given the foregoing details in order to shew, in the first place, that when the sexes of butterflies differ, the male as a general rule is the more beautiful, and departs more from the usual type of colouring of the group to which the species belongs. Hence in most groups the females of the several species resemble each other much more closely than do the males. In some cases, however, to which I shall hereafter allude, the females are coloured more splendidly than the males. In the second place, these details have been given to bring clearly before the mind that within the same genus, the two sexes frequently present every gradation from no difference in colour, to so great a difference that it was long before the two were placed by entomologists in the same genus. In the third place, we have seen that when the sexes nearly resemble each other, this appears due either to the male having transferred his colours to the female, or to the male having retained, or perhaps recovered, the primordial colours of the group. It also deserves notice that in those groups in which the sexes differ, the females usually somewhat resemble the males, so that when the males are beautiful to an extraordinary degree, the females almost invariably exhibit some degree of beauty. From the many cases of gradation in the amount of difference between the sexes, and from the prevalence of the same general type of coloration throughout the whole of the same group, we may conclude that the causes have generally been the same which have determined the brilliant colouring of the males alone of some species, and of both sexes of other species.

As so many gorgeous butterflies inhabit the tropics, it has often been supposed that they owe their colours to the great heat and moisture of these zones; but Mr. Bates (6. ‘The Naturalist on the Amazons,’ vol. i. 1863, p. 19.) has shown by the comparison of various closely-allied groups of insects from the temperate and tropical regions, that this view cannot be maintained; and the evidence becomes conclusive when brilliantly-coloured males and plain-coloured females of the same species inhabit the same district, feed on the same food, and follow exactly the same habits of life. Even when the sexes resemble each other, we can hardly believe that their brilliant and beautifully-arranged colours are the purposeless result of the nature of the tissues and of the action of the surrounding conditions.

With animals of all kinds, whenever colour has been modified for some special purpose, this has been, as far as we can judge, either for direct or indirect protection, or as an attraction between the sexes. With many species of butterflies the upper surfaces of the wings are obscure; and this in all probability leads to their escaping observation and danger. But butterflies would be particularly liable to be attacked by their enemies when at rest; and most kinds whilst resting raise their wings vertically over their backs, so that the lower surface alone is exposed to view. Hence it is this side which is often coloured so as to imitate the objects on which these insects commonly rest. Dr. Rossler, I believe, first noticed the similarity of the closed wings of certain Vanessae and other butterflies to the bark of trees. Many analogous and striking facts could be given. The most interesting one is that recorded by Mr. Wallace (7. See the interesting article in the ‘Westminster Review,’ July 1867, p. 10. A woodcut of the Kallima is given by Mr. Wallace in ‘Hardwicke’s Science Gossip,’ September 1867, p. 196.) of a common Indian and Sumatran butterfly (Kallima) which disappears like magic when it settles on a bush; for it hides its head and antennae between its closed wings, which, in form, colour and veining, cannot be distinguished from a withered leaf with its footstalk. In some other cases the lower surfaces of the wings are brilliantly coloured, and yet are protective; thus in Thecla rubi the wings when closed are of an emerald green, and resemble the young leaves of the bramble, on which in spring this butterfly may often be seen seated. It is also remarkable that in very many species in which the sexes differ greatly in colour on their upper surface, the lower surface is closely similar or identical in both sexes, and serves as a protection. (8. Mr. G. Fraser, in ‘Nature,’ April 1871, p. 489.)

Although the obscure tints both of the upper and under sides of many butterflies no doubt serve to conceal them, yet we cannot extend this view to the brilliant and conspicuous colours on the upper surface of such species as our admiral and peacock Vanessae, our white cabbage-butterflies (Pieris), or the great swallow-tail Papilio which haunts the open fens–for these butterflies are thus rendered visible to every living creature. In these species both sexes are alike; but in the common brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni), the male is of an intense yellow, whilst the female is much paler; and in the orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines) the males alone have their wings tipped with bright orange. Both the males and females in these cases are conspicuous, and it is not credible that their difference in colour should stand in any relation to ordinary protection. Prof. Weismann remarks (9. ‘Einfluss der Isolirung auf die Artbildung,’ 1872, p. 58.), that the female of one of the Lycaenae expands her brown wings when she settles on the ground, and is then almost invisible; the male, on the other hand, as if aware of the danger incurred from the bright blue of the upper surface of his wings, rests with them closed; and this shows that the blue colour cannot be in any way protective. Nevertheless, it is probable that conspicuous colours are indirectly beneficial to many species, as a warning that they are unpalatable. For in certain other cases, beauty has been gained through the imitation of other beautiful species, which inhabit the same district and enjoy an immunity from attack by being in some way offensive to their enemies; but then we have to account for the beauty of the imitated species.

As Mr. Walsh has remarked to me, the females of our orange-tip butterfly, above referred to, and of an American species (Anth. genutia) probably shew us the primordial colours of the parent-species of the genus; for both sexes of four or five widely-distributed species are coloured in nearly the same manner. As in several previous cases, we may here infer that it is the males of Anth. cardamines and genutia which have departed from the usual type of the genus. In the Anth. sara from California, the orange-tips to the wings have been partially developed in the female; but they are paler than in the male, and slightly different in some other respects. In an allied Indian form, the Iphias glaucippe, the orange-tips are fully developed in both sexes. In this Iphias, as pointed out to me by Mr. A. Butler, the under surface of the wings marvellously resembles a pale-coloured leaf; and in our English orange-tip, the under surface resembles the flower-head of the wild parsley, on which the butterfly often rests at night. (10. See the interesting observations by T.W. Wood, ‘The Student,’ Sept. 1868, p. 81.) The same reason which compels us to believe that the lower surfaces have here been coloured for the sake of protection, leads us to deny that the wings have been tipped with bright orange for the same purpose, especially when this character is confined to the males.

Most Moths rest motionless during the whole or greater part of the day with their wings depressed; and the whole upper surface is often shaded and coloured in an admirable manner, as Mr. Wallace has remarked, for escaping detection. The front-wings of the Bombycidae and Noctuidae (11. Mr. Wallace in ‘Hardwicke’s Science Gossip,’ September 1867, p. 193.), when at rest, generally overlap and conceal the hind-wings; so that the latter might be brightly coloured without much risk; and they are in fact often thus coloured. During flight, moths would often be able to escape from their enemies; nevertheless, as the hind-wings are then fully exposed to view, their bright colours must generally have been acquired at some little risk. But the following fact shews how cautious we ought to be in drawing conclusions on this head. The common Yellow Under-wings (Triphaena) often fly about during the day or early evening, and are then conspicuous from the colour of their hind-wings. It would naturally be thought that this would be a source of danger; but Mr. J. Jenner Weir believes that it actually serves them as a means of escape, for birds strike at these brightly coloured and fragile surfaces, instead of at the body. For instance, Mr. Weir turned into his aviary a vigorous specimen of Triphaena pronuba, which was instantly pursued by a robin; but the bird’s attention being caught by the coloured wings, the moth was not captured until after about fifty attempts, and small portions of the wings were repeatedly broken off. He tried the same experiment, in the open air, with a swallow and T. fimbria; but the large size of this moth probably interfered with its capture. (12. See also, on this subject, Mr. Weir’s paper in ‘Transactions, Entomological Society,’ 1869, p. 23.) We are thus reminded of a statement made by Mr. Wallace (13. ‘Westminster Review,’ July 1867, p. 16.), namely, that in the Brazilian forests and Malayan islands, many common and highly-decorated butterflies are weak flyers, though furnished with a broad expanse of wing; and they “are often captured with pierced and broken wings, as if they had been seized by birds, from which they had escaped: if the wings had been much smaller in proportion to the body, it seems probable that the insect would more frequently have been struck or pierced in a vital part, and thus the increased expanse of the wings may have been indirectly beneficial.”

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