A Morpho butterfly may be one of over 29 accepted species and 147 accepted subspecies of butterflies in the genus Morpho. They are Neotropical butterflies found mostly in South America as well as Mexico and Central America. Morphos range in wingspan from the 7.5 cm (3 inch) M. rhodopteron to the imposing 20 cm (8 inch) Sunset Morpho, M. hecuba. The name Morpho, meaning changed or modified, is also an epithet of Aphrodite and Venus.
Many Morpho butterflies are colored in metallic, shimmering shades of blue and green. These colors are not a result of pigmentation but are an example of iridescence through structural coloration: the microscopic scales covering the Morpho's wings reflect incident light repeatedly at successive layers, leading to interference effects that depend on both wavelength and angle of incidence/observance. Thus the colors produced vary with viewing angle, however they are actually surprisingly uniform, perhaps due to the tetrahedral (diamond-like) structural arrangement of the scales or diffraction from overlying cell layers. This structure may be likened to a photonic crystal. The lamellate structure of their wing scales has been studied as a model in the development of biomimetic fabrics, dye-free paints, and anti-counterfeit technology used in currency.
The iridescent lamellae are only present on the dorsal side of their wings, leaving the ventral side brown.
The ventral side is decorated with ocelli or eyespots. In some species, such as M. godarti, the dorsal lamellae are so thin as to allow the ventral ocelli to peek through. While not all Morphos have iridescent coloration, they all have ocelli. In most species only the males are colorful, supporting the theory that the coloration is used for intrasexual communication between males. The lamellae reflect up to 70% of light falling on them, including any ultraviolet (UV). The eyes of Morpho butterflies are thought to be highly sensitive to UV light and therefore the males are able to see each other from great distances. Some South American species are reportedly visible by the human eye up to one kilometre away.
There also exist a number of other species which are tawny orange or dark brown for instance (M. hecuba, M. telemachus). Some species are white principal among these being M. catenariusand M. laertes. An unusual species that is fundamentally white in coloration, but which exhibits a stunning pearlescent purple and teal iridescence when viewed at certain angles is the rare M. sulkowskyi. Some Andean species are small and delicate (M. lympharis). Among the metallic blue Morpho species, M. rhetenor stands out as the most iridescent of all, with M. cypris a close second. Indeed, M. cypris is notable in that specimens that are mounted in entomological collections will exhibit color differences across the wings if they are not 'set' perfectly flat.
(above) large & small caterpillars (larva) of the Blue Morpho
(left, a collection of Blue Morpho Butterflies)
Habitat: Primary forests of the Amazon and Atlantic. Also adapted to breed in a wide variety of other forested habitats, for instance the dry deciduous woodlands of Nicaragua and secondary forests.
Morphos are found at altitudes between sea level and about 1400 m
Morphos have a very distinctive slow, bouncy flight pattern due to the wing area being enormous relative to the body size.
The entire life cycle of the Morpho butterfly, from egg to death, is approximately 115 days.
pupae and emerging adult
The larvae hatch from pale green, dewdrop-like eggs. The caterpillars have reddish-brown bodies with bright lime-green or yellow patches on its back. Its hairs are irritating to human skin, and when disturbed it secretes a fluid that smells like rancid butter from eversible glands on the thorax. The strong odor is a defence against predators. They feed on a variety of plants. The caterpillar will molt five times before entering the pupal stage. The bulbous chrysalis is pale-green or jade-green and emits a repulsive, ultrasonic sound when touched. It is suspended from a stem or leaf of the foodplant.
"The larvae live in nests on different forest -trees and especially on the climbing plants, but attack one another. There are about five moults. Larva cylindrical rather slender, somewhat thickened in the middle,tapering posteriorly. The last segment terminates in an indistinct tail-fork. The head is comparatively large and bears a pair of horizontal, conical processes, directed anteriorly, which are sometimes only rudimentary. Color always bright, sometimes variegated, yellowish with red-brown dorsal stripes or cross-shaped figures, back with long subdorsal tufts of bristles, of which the middle and posterior are in some cases gaily colored. Pupa similar to that of the genus Amathusia but more oval. Head with two tubercles, wing-cases distinctly projecting, abdomen sometimes belted with yellow ; color green or yellowish. Pupa on twigs or leaves attached by the abdomen but hanging free. The pupal stage lasts 20—30 days".
The adults live for about two to three weeks. They feed on the fluids of fermenting fruit, decomposing animals, tree sap, fungi and nutrient rich mud.They are poisonous to predators thanks to toxins they sequestered from plants they fed on as caterpillars.
The commoner Blue Morphos are reared en masse in commercial breeding programs. The iridescent wings are used in the manufacture of jewelry and as inlay in woodworking. Papered specimens are sold with the abdomen removed to prevent its oily contents from staining the wings. Significant quantities of live specimens are exported as pupae from several neotropical countries for exhibition in butterfly houses. Unfortunately, due to their irregular flight pattern and size, their wings are frequently damaged when in captivity.
(left) Adult blue Morpho emerging from cocoon freshly pumped wings and some examples of cocoons near it in captivity
(below) A pair of blue Morphos one with pumped wings and another that has just emerged