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.
In October of last year, I had the good fortune to visit the Asa Wright Nature Center and Tobago through Caligo Birding Tours. Trinidad and Tabago are blessed with abundant hummingbirds on both Islands, both at Asa Wright on Trinidad and at the home of Newton George on Tabago. Sometimes there are places with many hummingbirds of just one or two species, but my experience on both islands was both large numbers and a good selection of species, depending to some extent on the time of year that I visited. One of the largest and most beautiful hummingbirds that can be reliably found on both islands in all seasons is the White Necked Jacobin. While I have seen them in smaller numbers in Costa Rica, both sexes were nicely represented at Asa Wright. One of the downsides of having a fair number of both hummingbird numbers and species is the problem of “the little green hummingbird”. By this I mean, small green hummingbirds that look very similar, which usually but not always, can be identified by their limited range and/or your location. In some unfortunate locations which include Trinidad and Tobago, there are several small green hummingbirds that look similar, all in the same place. While this creates some difficulties, close observation can usually resolve ambiguities. I have included both flash and natural photographs and the ISO since I believe flash photography reveals additional aspects of hummingbird colors.
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.