The Descent of Man – Day 84 of 151


This principle was first made clear in an admirable paper by Mr. Bates (29. ‘Transact. Linn. Soc.’ vol. xxiii. 1862, p. 495.), who thus threw a flood of light on many obscure problems. It had previously been observed that certain butterflies in S. America belonging to quite distinct families, resembled the Heliconidae so closely in every stripe and shade of colour, that they could not be distinguished save by an experienced entomologist. As the Heliconidae are coloured in their usual manner, whilst the others depart from the usual colouring of the groups to which they belong, it is clear that the latter are the imitators, and the Heliconidae the imitated. Mr. Bates further observed that the imitating species are comparatively rare, whilst the imitated abound, and that the two sets live mingled together. From the fact of the Heliconidae being conspicuous and beautiful insects, yet so numerous in individuals and species, he concluded that they must be protected from the attacks of enemies by some secretion or odour; and this conclusion has now been amply confirmed (30. ‘Proc. Entomological Soc.’ Dec. 3, 1866, p. xlv.), especially by Mr. Belt. Hence Mr. Bates inferred that the butterflies which imitate the protected species have acquired their present marvellously deceptive appearance through variation and natural selection, in order to be mistaken for the protected kinds, and thus to escape being devoured. No explanation is here attempted of the brilliant colours of the imitated, but only of the imitating butterflies. We must account for the colours of the former in the same general manner, as in the cases previously discussed in this chapter. Since the publication of Mr. Bates’ paper, similar and equally striking facts have been observed by Mr. Wallace in the Malayan region, by Mr. Trimen in South Africa, and by Mr. Riley in the United States. (31. Wallace, ‘Transact. Linn. Soc.’ vol. xxv. 1865 p. i.; also, ‘Transact. Ent. Soc.’ vol. iv. (3rd series), 1867, p. 301. Trimen, ‘Linn. Transact.’ vol. xxvi. 1869, p. 497. Riley, ‘Third Annual Report on the Noxious Insects of Missouri,’ 1871, pp. 163-168. This latter essay is valuable, as Mr. Riley here discusses all the objections which have been raised against Mr. Bates’s theory.)

As some writers have felt much difficulty in understanding how the first steps in the process of mimicry could have been effected through natural selection, it may be well to remark that the process probably commenced long ago between forms not widely dissimilar in colour. In this case even a slight variation would be beneficial, if it rendered the one species more like the other; and afterwards the imitated species might be modified to an extreme degree through sexual selection or other means, and if the changes were gradual, the imitators might easily be led along the same track, until they differed to an equally extreme degree from their original condition; and they would thus ultimately assume an appearance or colouring wholly unlike that of the other members of the group to which they belonged. It should also be remembered that many species of Lepidoptera are liable to considerable and abrupt variations in colour. A few instances have been given in this chapter; and many more may be found in the papers of Mr. Bates and Mr. Wallace.

With several species the sexes are alike, and imitate the two sexes of another species. But Mr. Trimen gives, in the paper already referred to, three cases in which the sexes of the imitated form differ from each other in colour, and the sexes of the imitating form differ in a like manner. Several cases have also been recorded where the females alone imitate brilliantly-coloured and protected species, the males retaining “the normal aspect of their immediate congeners.” It is here obvious that the successive variations by which the female has been modified have been transmitted to her alone. It is, however, probable that some of the many successive variations would have been transmitted to, and developed in, the males had not such males been eliminated by being thus rendered less attractive to the females; so that only those variations were preserved which were from the first strictly limited in their transmission to the female sex. We have a partial illustration of these remarks in a statement by Mr. Belt (32. ‘The Naturalist in Nicaragua,’ 1874, p. 385.); that the males of some of the Leptalides, which imitate protected species, still retain in a concealed manner some of their original characters. Thus in the males “the upper half of the lower wing is of a pure white, whilst all the rest of the wings is barred and spotted with black, red and yellow, like the species they mimic. The females have not this white patch, and the males usually conceal it by covering it with the upper wing, so that I cannot imagine its being of any other use to them than as an attraction in courtship, when they exhibit it to the females, and thus gratify their deep-seated preference for the normal colour of the Order to which the Leptalides belong.”

Bright Colours of Caterpillars

Whilst reflecting on the beauty of many butterflies, it occurred to me that some caterpillars were splendidly coloured; and as sexual selection could not possibly have here acted, it appeared rash to attribute the beauty of the mature insect to this agency, unless the bright colours of their larvae could be somehow explained. In the first place, it may be observed that the colours of caterpillars do not stand in any close correlation with those of the mature insect. Secondly, their bright colours do not serve in any ordinary manner as a protection. Mr. Bates informs me, as an instance of this, that the most conspicuous caterpillar which he ever beheld (that of a Sphinx) lived on the large green leaves of a tree on the open llanos of South America; it was about four inches in length, transversely banded with black and yellow, and with its head, legs, and tail of a bright red. Hence it caught the eye of any one who passed by, even at the distance of many yards, and no doubt that of every passing bird.

I then applied to Mr. Wallace, who has an innate genius for solving difficulties. After some consideration he replied: “Most caterpillars require protection, as may be inferred from some kinds being furnished with spines or irritating hairs, and from many being coloured green like the leaves on which they feed, or being curiously like the twigs of the trees on which they live.” Another instance of protection, furnished me by Mr. J. Mansel Weale, may be added, namely, that there is a caterpillar of a moth which lives on the mimosas in South Africa, and fabricates for itself a case quite indistinguishable from the surrounding thorns. From such considerations Mr. Wallace thought it probable that conspicuously coloured caterpillars were protected by having a nauseous taste; but as their skin is extremely tender, and as their intestines readily protrude from a wound, a slight peck from the beak of a bird would be as fatal to them as if they had been devoured. Hence, as Mr. Wallace remarks, “distastefulness alone would be insufficient to protect a caterpillar unless some outward sign indicated to its would-be destroyer that its prey was a disgusting morsel.” Under these circumstances it would be highly advantageous to a caterpillar to be instantaneously and certainly recognised as unpalatable by all birds and other animals. Thus the most gaudy colours would be serviceable, and might have been gained by variation and the survival of the most easily-recognised individuals.

This hypothesis appears at first sight very bold, but when it was brought before the Entomological Society (33. ‘Proceedings, Entomological Society,’ Dec. 3, 1866, p. xlv. and March 4, 1867, p. lxxx.) it was supported by various statements; and Mr. J. Jenner Weir, who keeps a large number of birds in an aviary, informs me that he has made many trials, and finds no exception to the rule, that all caterpillars of nocturnal and retiring habits with smooth skins, all of a green colour, and all which imitate twigs, are greedily devoured by his birds. The hairy and spinose kinds are invariably rejected, as were four conspicuously-coloured species. When the birds rejected a caterpillar, they plainly shewed, by shaking their heads, and cleansing their beaks, that they were disgusted by the taste. (34. See Mr. J. Jenner Weir’s paper on Insects and Insectivorous Birds, in ‘Transact. Ent. Soc.’ 1869, p. 21; also Mr. Butler’s paper, ibid. p. 27. Mr. Riley has given analogous facts in the ‘Third Annual Report on the Noxious Insects of Missouri,’ 1871, p. 148. Some opposed cases are, however, given by Dr. Wallace and M. H. d’Orville; see ‘Zoological Record,’ 1869, p. 349.) Three conspicuous kinds of caterpillars and moths were also given to some lizards and frogs, by Mr. A. Butler, and were rejected, though other kinds were eagerly eaten. Thus the probability of Mr. Wallace’s view is confirmed, namely, that certain caterpillars have been made conspicuous for their own good, so as to be easily recognised by their enemies, on nearly the same principle that poisons are sold in coloured bottles by druggists for the good of man. We cannot, however, at present thus explain the elegant diversity in the colours of many caterpillars; but any species which had at some former period acquired a dull, mottled, or striped appearance, either in imitation of surrounding objects, or from the direct action of climate, etc., almost certainly would not become uniform in colour, when its tints were rendered intense and bright; for in order to make a caterpillar merely conspicuous, there would be no selection in any definite direction.

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