Butterflies have been held in reverence and high esteem for millennia, enshrined by the ancient Greeks in the mythical love affair between Cupid/Eros and Psyche the butterfly goddess. According to Greek mythology, Psyche was a beautiful maiden who fell in love with Eros/Cupid. Cupid’s mother, Aphrodite, was jealous of Psyche’s beauty and tried to keep the lovers apart. Eventually, however, Aphrodite realized that Cupid and Psyche were destined to be together and so Zeus made Psyche immortal. Psyche is also the Greek word for “soul” and “butterfly.” Although the original Greek story has been lost to history, the mythology of Cupid and Psyche was preserved in the book Metamorphoses written in the 2nd century CE by Platonicus. The Greek story of Eros and Psyche is known from at least the 4th century BCE and was a popular subject in Greek and Roman art. The word for butterfly in formal Greek is psyche, thought to be the soul of the dead. Ancient Greeks also named the butterfly scolex (“worm”), while the chrysalis – which is the next stage of metamorphosis from a caterpillar – was called nekydallon, meaning “the shell of the dead”. The metamorphosis of the butterfly inspired many to use butterflies as a symbol of the soul’s exit from the body. Thus, the myth of Psyche concomitantly signifies soul and butterfly. It has come to mean the story of the soul coupled with divine Eros, but which must nevertheless endure tribulations before achieving immortality. Psyche, a mortal woman, was released from death by Zeus, the father of the gods, who took pity on her and granted her immortality. Psyche’s mythological imagery in ancient art is represented with butterfly wings, amply depicted in pottery as well. Freed from death, the body of the soul could fly freely, soaring, departing from the shackles of the chrysalis. I thought this lovely Greek story would be the perfect introduction to a review of beautiful butterflies.
Very few organisms consume nectar exclusively over their whole life cycle, either supplementing it with other sources, particularly insects (thus overlapping with insectivores) or only consuming it exclusively for a set period. Many species are nectar robbers or nectar thieves, performing no pollination services to a plant while still consuming nectar. Nectar-feeding is widespread among birds, but no species consumes nectar exclusively. Most combine it with insects for a mixed diet. Of particular interest are four lineages of specialized nectar consuming birds in the New World: the Hummingbirds (Trochilidae) and three members of the Tanager (Thraupidae) family; Bananaquits, Flowerpiercers and Honeycreepers. These groups have adapted to permit a nectar-central diet, showing higher activity of digestive enzymes which break down sugars, higher rates of absorption of sugars, and altered kidney function. Birds need the enzyme sucrase in their bodies, in order to digest the sucrose of nectar. And most simply don’t have enough. Scientists think birds that can readily digest sugar, like warblers, have an adaptive advantage. When they fly to the tropics for the colder months, they can tap into sources of sugar that other birds just can’t handle. That sweet tooth, it turns out, is important to their survival.
I have a few photographs that depict flowers found wild in Costa Rica (including the famous Hot Lips or Hookers Lips flower) some photos of butterflies and hummingbirds found on Porterweed and Lantana. One fine early morning on my most recent trip to Costa Rica, we visited a patch of wild Porterweed. This area was alive with small hummingbirds, maths and butterflies. In particular we saw the Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl), the Violet-Headed Hummingbird (Klais guimeti) and a variety of moths and butterflies. In my estimation, there are no greater nectar producing species than Lantana and Porterweed. Every morning in Las Vegas, I have 5 to 10 hummingbirds waiting to feed at my various lantana beds. With the preferences of hummingbirds in Costa Rica, I plan to plant several patches of Porterweed to enhance my garden. As for the rest of the post, beautiful orchids and unusual plants will hopefully excite and amaze you. As for the butterfly at the top of the post, I found this butterfly at Frog’s Geaven. Nymphidium is a genus in the butterfly family Riodinidae present only in the Neotropical ecozone. Some Nymphidium are obviously secondarily transformed by mimicry, otherwise the almost exclusive colors are brown and white either of which being now and then preponderant.
The Hotel Bougainvillea is a relatively small, privately owned hotel in a suburb of San José in Santo Domingo near Santa Rosa in the Herdia province popular as a starting point for nature tours in Costa Rica. Part of the reason making this a popular choice is the affordable prices but the real selling point of the hotel is the 10 acre garden. It has been my experience that the most beautiful, varied and interesting gardens are created by a collector. While I never met the owner(s), this is truly a world class garden, with sculpture, mature local and special rare species from the surrounding countries and even an amazing rock collection. The rooms are typical of a Motel 6 but the restaurant is good, especially with local favorites and it has air conditioning. The Costa Rica National Gardening Association has given them an award as the best garden in Costa Rica. In this garden you can find small samples of the country’s crops, such as coffee, cocoa, bananas, pineapple and papaya. They have 22 types of bromeliads, 51 different orchids, 28 types of heliconia and 29 types of lilies among many other plants. Because it was winter, I only got to see a fraction of the garden in bloom but trust me, this is a garden you will want to visit.
I thought I would add a post on the trees of Costa Rica since there are so many beautiful and unusual specimens. This trip, I visited during the winter or dry season, so many of the plants were without leaves or flowers. Nonetheless, there were many fascinating examples of trees that we in North America rarely get to see. I have roughly divided them into fruit trees, large trees and palm and palm-like trees. Cassia grandis, seen above, is one of several species called pink shower tree, and known as carao in Spanish. It is a flowering plant in the family Fabaceae, native to the neotropics, that grows up to 98 feet (30 m). The species is distributed from southern México, to Venezuela and Ecuador. It grows in forests and open fields at lower elevations, and is known to be planted as an ornamental. In at least Costa Rica, its pods are stewed into a molasses-like syrup, taken as a sweetener and for its nutritional and medicinal effects, called Jarabe (or Miel) de Carao.
Most of Costa Rica’s forests can be primarily classified into three groups; rainforests, cloud forests and topical dry forests. And while rainforests are the most common habitat, the cloud forests of Costa Rica are a magnificent sight to behold. Rainforests can be found in the southwest of the country as well as in the Atlantic lowlands, with towering trees and looping vines that create a magical wispy environment. Receiving a high annual rainfall, these dense forests are characterized by a wealth of plant and animal life. Rainforests are located at lower elevations, and as a result, they tend to be much warmer, especially during the dry season. Cloud forests, on the other hand, are usually located at much higher elevations, and are much cooler. This difference in temperature contributes to the mist and fog that is often visible in cloud forests, as the milder temperatures slow the evaporation process. However, despite being a little cooler than rainforests, cloud forests are very humid. Cloud forests generate water by capturing water from fog (surface clouds). Water condenses on the leaves and branches of cloud forest trees, epiphytes and lichen, drips to the forest floor, and enters streams. The tropical evergreen cloud forests on the slopes of the Cordillera de Talamanca in Costa Rica’s southern highlands is of vital importance both as a source of drinking and irrigation water to the main cities in the Valle Central and as a bastion of many endemic species. This is not meant to be a comprehensive survey of the plants in the cloud forest, concentrating instead on important and noteworthy plants in this ecosystem.
Heliconia is named after Mount Helicon, the seat of the Muses, nine goddesses of the arts and sciences in Greek mythology. These are known as lobster-claw, wild plantain, flowering banana, parrot flower, macaw flower and false bird-of-paradise. Heliconiaceae in the order Zingiberales, are among the showiest plants of the Neotropical rainforest and represent a spectacular co-evolutionary adaptive radiation with hummingbirds. Heliconia originated in the Late Eocene (39 million years ago), making it the oldest known clade of hummingbird-pollinated plants. Heliconia, the only genus of the family Heliconiaceae, has approximately 120 species in tropical America and the western Pacific. These large perennial herbs have brightly colored bracts and bear numerous flowers. Heliconia are typically pollinated by hummingbirds. Most of the 194 known species are native to the tropical Americas, but a few are indigenous to certain islands of the western Pacific and Maluku. Several species are widely cultivated as ornamentals, and a few are naturalized in Florida, Gambia, Thailand and Costa Rica. The plants have stout, reed-like stems and are related to Tropical Gingers, Bird of Paradise, Bananas and Canna Lilies, whose leaves are all similar. These are all grouped in the order Zingiberales, which includes many familiar plants, and are used as ornamental plants (Bird of Paradise flower, Heliconias, Prayer-Plant, Tropical Gingers), food crops (bananas, plantains, arrowroot), spices and traditional medicines (ginger, cardamom, turmeric, galangal and myoga). I saw a nice selection of these plants when I visited Costa Rica this year and thought it would make an interesting post.
I happen to love woodpeckers, they are colorful, noisy and just fun to look at. Their cheerful tapping always calls to me to take a look. There are about 200 known varieties, many of which are threatened or endangered. The plumage of woodpeckers varies from drab to conspicuous. The colors of many species are based on olive and brown and some are pied, suggesting a need for camouflage; others are boldly patterned in black, white and red, and many have a crest or tufted feathers on the crown. Woodpeckers tend to be sexually dimorphic, but differences between the sexes are generally small, usually involving the head. I thought it would be nice to present these all together so that you could see and compare the various forms and colors that woodpeckers exhibit in different places. I have some beautiful woodpeckers from Africa, Costa Rica, Colorado and Arizona. Sapsuckers are also part of the Woodpecker family and I have a beautiful Red-Breasted Sapsucker from Humbolt county in California.
For those fortunate few who view a King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) for the first time, the experience will be unforgettable. King vultures are one of the largest New World vulture, second only to condors. It is not their size however that is visually arresting, but their bright white feathers with a vividly colored head. Certainly early native Americans would have immediately sensed the singularity of this majestic bird and would associate it with a god-like presence in their jungle world. In fact in Mayan legends, the bird was seen as a king who served as a messenger between humans and the gods. They would have observed its habit of displacing smaller vultures from a carcass and eating its fill while they wait, thus warranting the crown of a king among fellow birds. This bird was also known as the “white crow” by the Spanish in Paraguay. It was called cozcacuauhtli in Nahuatl, derived from cozcatl “collar” and cuauhtli “bird of prey”. [Read more…]
Parrots are among the most intelligent and colorful birds, found in most tropical and subtropical regions and popular as pets. The parrot family includes the most beautiful birds in the bird kingdom, and are broadly divided into families including macaws, eclectus, cockatoos, New Zealand kakapo, Madagascar lovebirds, parakeets, budgerigar and conures. Parrots are found on all tropical and subtropical continents and regions. Macaws are native to Central America and Mexico, South America, and formerly the Caribbean. Most species are associated with forests, especially rainforests, but others prefer woodland or savannah-like habitats. Costa Rica has 17 species of parrots and parakeets of the 365 species in the world. They vary in size, from tiny little parakeets to very large macaws. Parrots and parakeets are widely distributed throughout Costa Rica. The Scarlet Macaw is found from the Central Pacific south to the Osa Peninsula. There are several rescue organizations that are breeding in Guanacaste as well, with some success. Visitors interested in the Great-green Macaw, will need to visit the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. The very small existing population lives on the Caribbean slope. I visited a rescue sanctuary run by a farmer near the SarapiquiS Rainforest Lodge on the Caribbean slopes of Costa Rica where I took most of these photos.