See the World from
a Butterfly’s Point of View

Neil Björklund   Website

I wonder if butterflies might get annoyed by all the poetic language they attract. They’re “tiny rainbows,” “flying flowers,” or “ephemeral angels.” We use them as metaphors for transformation and as symbols of beauty, joy, and immortality.

But what are they really?

My fear is that all the chatter about beautiful butterflies reflecting the sky or brightening our summer days leads us to overlook the astonishing truth of what they’re actually doing out there in the wild and in our backyards.

On your next hike or camping trip in Central or Eastern Oregon, when you see some of the butterflies shown here , consider the remarkable ways in which they, like us, are sensing the world.

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Badger

Badger

Badgers are generally nocturnal, but, in remote areas with no human encroachment, they are routinely observed foraging during the day. They prefer open areas with grasslands, which can include parklands, farms, and treeless areas with crumbly soil and a supply of rodent prey.

Badgers are born blind, furred, and helpless. Their eyes open at four to six weeks.

Latin name: Taxidea taxus

voices

Durlin Hicock, Alice Elshoff Award winner

Durlin Hicock, Alice Elshoff Award winner

“Protecting public land is part of my spiritual being. It’s central to my identity to be in wilderness and to see it protected.” Durlin is proud to protect public lands for future generations, saying, “The highlight of my childhood was our family’s weekend outdoor trips. I look forward to my grandchildren having similar experiences outside in their lifetimes, and it wouldn’t be possible without ONDA.”

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Bobcat

Bobcat

Found only in North America, where it is the most common wildcat, the bobcat takes its common name from its stubby, or “bobbed,” tail. The cats range in length from two to four feet and weigh 14 to 29 pounds. Bobcats mainly hunt rabbits and hares, but they will also eat rodents, birds, bats, and even adult deer.

Latin name: Lynx rufus fasciatus

 

Sight

Look at the head of a butterfly to find the two tiny compound eyes that give them a wide field of vision (yes, they see you too). They can see up, down, to the side, forward, and backward at the same time, and they can detect colors into the ultraviolet range that confounds us.

Their eyes have tens of thousands of individual light receptors—picture a honeycomb—each with its own microscopic lens. When the amount of light hitting the receptors changes, as when a predator or a net approaches, butterflies can detect the movement and take evasive action.

Butterfly shown: Coronis Fritillary
Photo: Christopher Christie, https://www.flickr.com/photos/christopherchristie/

Sound

Butterfly hearing hasn’t been studied for long—there is so much about even the most common of animals that we’re still learning. But we do know that some butterflies can hear using a membrane located on their wings (or other body parts) that vibrates in response to sounds.

Some moths have ears tuned to the high-frequency echolocation calls of bats; when they hear those calls, they either take evasive action or drop to the ground as if dead. Butterfly hearing is thought to be similar, only theirs is tuned to different frequencies—like the low-frequency sound of a bird’s wings flapping as it swoops in for a meal.

Butterfly shown: Boisduval's Blue
Photo: Christopher Christie, https://www.flickr.com/photos/christopherchristie/

Smell

Butterflies have chemoreceptors similar to the ones in our noses, but theirs are located on their feet and antennae. The club-like tips of butterfly antennae are especially dense with chemoreceptors, which can sense the honey-like odor of nectar or the smell of pheromones emitted by males of some species.

Butterfly shown: Ancilla Blue
Photo: Neil Bjorklund, Butterflies of Oregon

Touch

Butterflies touch and feel leaves, flowers, and other objects with their feet, antennae, proboscis, and tiny hairs all over their bodies.

Butterfly shown: Yuma Skipper
Photo: Neil Bjorklund, Butterflies of Oregon

Taste

Butterflies eat leaves and other food when they’re larvae (caterpillars), building up their strength to eventually transform into adults. During their usually brief adult lives, they don’t eat; rather, they drink nectar and other substances using the straw-like proboscis at the front of their heads.

They also taste leaves using chemoreceptors on their forelegs, which is especially important for female butterflies when they’re trying to find the right place to lay their eggs. Each butterfly species can only lay eggs successfully on certain host plants that provide the right nutrients—most famously, Monarchs need to lay their eggs on milkweeds.

Watch closely, and sometime you might see a butterfly drumming her legs—sometimes all six legs—on a leaf to draw out juices for the chemoreceptors on her legs to test. Only if the taste is right, indicating that the leaf is indeed that of a host plant, will the female deposit one or more of her eggs.

Butterfly shown: Basin Wood Nymph
Photo: Christopher Christie, https://www.flickr.com/photos/christopherchristie/

Get out there

The next time your friend remarks on a butterfly’s beauty while walking quickly past, you might stop and say, “You know, they’re more than just beautiful …” Then stay for a while. Pull out your binoculars and your field guide, so you can both identify the species and appreciate how that one individual is experiencing the world.

Learn More

ONDA member Neil Bjorklund has created a terrific resource for learning about the butterflies that live in Oregon. Check out the website Butterflies of Oregon for beautiful photography and to follow along as Neil shares updates from his quest to photograph all 160 of the butterfly species that breed in Oregon.


About the author

LeeAnn Kreigh is a long-time ONDA member, freelance writer and author of The Nature of Bend.

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