Hello again bug fans. As the 2013 Christmas season is getting more and more hectic, we all need a little time to relax and unwind. With this in mind, we can’t think of anything more relaxing than watching beautiful butterflies calmly drinking nectar from flowers, and slowly gliding on air currents as they move between the blossoms. Some of the most calming of these butterflies belong to the Helicon family. They are brightly colored and love to quietly rest on leaves and bask in the sunlight. When they feed at flowers, they usually open their wings calmly, and are much less nervous than other species of butterflies. So with this tranquil image in mind, we thought that in this week’s Friday Flyers, we’d introduce to you to the Helicon butterflies.
Helicon butterflies are smaller mid-sized butterflies with wingspans in the 2-3 inch range. They are native to Central and South America, with a few species living in the southern gulf states of America and the Caribbean Islands. Helicon butterflies are characterized by long antennae, long slender bodies, and rounded wings that are elongated kind of like airplanes. They can easily be spotted gliding effortlessly in the rainforest canopy, often patrolling their favorite patch of sunlit leaves. Considering that the jungle is full of predators, Heliconids seem to not have a care in the world. The reason for this is that most of them are bad tasting or mildly poisonous to many predators. Their wings are brightly colored and have patterns that are recognizable to predators, warning them to stay away. Heliconid toxicity comes from the leaves that their caterpillars eat. The poisons in the plant are stored by the caterpillars, and transferred and retained by the adult butterflies. This is an important evolutionary trait that we find in many butterfly and moth families. With Heliconids, “You are what you eat!!!”
As far as collectors are concerned, Heliconids are interesting butterflies to have in a collection. Their shapes and colors make them unique in mixed display arrangements, and every moderate sized collection includes some Heliconids. But to truly understand and appreciate Heliconids, you have to be a specialist. The Helicon family actually does not have that many species. But most of the species have lots of forms. In some cases, the forms are not recognizable as the same species. Some species have as many as 10 or 20 different forms!!! In most cases, the different forms do not occupy the same territory, but in some species several forms do live together. To complicate this confusion, some species of Heliconids mimic each other. This mimicry helps to reinforce their toxicity recognition among predators. By increasing the number of toxic individuals within an area, predators learn to avoid them more easily. In other words, “You are what your mimic eats!!!”
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Heliconid mimicry is that, if two species mimic each other in Peru, the same two species can mimic each other in Brazil…but with a DIFFERENT PATTERN in the two locations!!! The evolutionary variation seems to be endless and incomprehensible. Finally, to add one more variable into this confusion, Heliconids hybridize rather freely. When two forms of a species overlap in a location, they can hybridize and generate intergrade forms as descendents. And it is also common for two different species to hybridize and create pattern and color blended offspring. This is a truly fascinating phenomenon, not exclusive to Heliconids, but one which the Heliconids have taken to the highest level of complexity. Collectors who specialize in Helicon butterflies can have collections with thousands of specimens in order to represent the comprehensive range of possible forms. In this week’s photos for our album we have shown some Heliconid species from Ecuador, some species that mimic each other, a group of hybrid forms from Peru, and some photos of the butterflies at flowers.
Helicon butterflies come in a wide range of colors, some with iridescent overtones. Because of their relatively small size, space limitations on your wall or in your collection drawers is never a problem. In our Wonders Of Nature department, we usually frame the Helicons in small groups with a number of butterflies filling a larger frame. We always have some in our collage frames, and we can even make custom layouts if you desire. Our shelves are fully stocked for Christmas, and this would be a great time to round off your collection with some Helicon butterflies.
We hope you enjoyed this week’s edition of Friday Flyers. We love sharing our interest in butterflies and insects with you. Please enjoy the photos we have posted with this week’s edition, and be sure to see all the previous pictures in our Friday Flyers album.
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