Happy final Friday of the year bug fans! We’ve had a lot of fun this year bringing you our Friday Flyers feature, and we hope you’ve learned a little bit about the wonderful world of Insects. For this final week of 2013, we thought we would end the year on a high note with one of our all-time favorites---the stunning Morpho rhetenor. The Morpho butterflies are South America’s most well known butterflies because of their medium to large size and their incredible iridescent blue colors, and Morpho rhetenor is the most breath-taking of them all. Think about the most beautiful dark royal blue you’ve ever seen. Now make it neon and double its intensity. Next, make the color change from violet-blue to greenish-blue as you move it. Then contrast this blue with snow-white patches and markings. This is Morpho rhetenor!!!
There are not really that many species of Morpho butterflies in South and Central America, but each species has a varying number of subspecies and forms and sometimes repeating aberrations that have names. Some of these identifications were made as legitimate errors in recognizing relationships between separated populations, and some were made to enhance the prestige of the describer. Morpho rhetenor is no exception. Recently a large effort was made to reclassify the Morpho butterflies, and today only 5 subspecies of Morpho rhetenor are recognized (each having a number of forms.) If you look at our accompanying composite photo, you can see how the confusion arises. In addition, while the male rhetenors are iridescent blue, the females are a non-iridescent yellowish-orange with brown or black markings!!! The undersides of both sexes are drab by contrast, with shaded and mottled brown to resemble dead leaves while at rest.
Of the 5 subspecies of Morpho rhetenor, four are regularly encountered, and one from Venezuela was thought to be extinct until recently and is subsequently unobtainable except from old collections. The interesting thing about the various subspecies is how they all arose from a single common ancestor. The group of rhetenor subspecies illustrates the evolutionary principles that we call “speciation” very graphically. Speciation is a general term for the explanation of how one species can evolve into two or more species over time. In general, butterflies do not stray far from their home territory, and this is most true in tropical jungles where there is no need to fly long distances for food, etc. Under normal circumstances a contiguous population will remain uniform. But when a population gets separated from the main body, like by a wide river or in an isolated valley, it can follow a different evolutionary path. Sometimes mutations that occur in one population become dominant, while the other populations are unaffected. This is especially evident in the comparison between the rhetenor subspecies rhetenor and helena. They have lots of similarities, but they could easily be mistakenly identified as different species. Because of all the differences between the forms, most serious Morpho collectors will try to accumulate a long series of specimens to represent all of the possible forms. With rhetenor, this can take a lot of space, and more importantly, a lot of money. In the last 20 years, Morpho rhetenor has been bred on butterfly farms, to supply the needs of collectors around the world. But prior to 20 years ago, only field-caught specimens were available, and as a result the supply was scarce for most of the forms. The females, which are usually treetop flyers, were almost unobtainable, with resulting prices in the $500 to $1,000 range. And Morpho rhetenor augustinae, the Venezuelan subspecies thought to be extinct, even today can easily fetch prices over $2,000 for the males, and the sky is the limit for the females. Luckily, the butterfly farms have made the four more common subspecies available at reasonable prices.
We have seen two Morpho rhetenors flying in our lifetimes, both in Brazil. Like most Morpho butterflies, you can see them flying hundreds of feet away due to their incredible iridescent blue wings. But they seem to appear out of nowhere, because when they are resting on a branch, the undersides of the wings provide a very effective camouflage. So when you disturb them in the forest, by the time you see them take flight it’s already too late to catch them. Although a few butterfly houses have other Morpho species in their enclosed habitats, Morpho rhetenor is not available because the breeders don’t export them alive. Currently, the only place you can see them alive is in the jungles of South America. But if you want to get a close-up look at this magnificent butterfly, we have several beautifully framed specimens of various subspecies in our Wonders Of Nature department. If you have never seen them in person, seeing our assortment is a great way to finish off 2013 and start your 2014 wish list. Happy New Year!!!
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. Remember to “like” our Wonders Of Nature page, and be sure to pass it along to all your Facebook Friends. We hope you’ll visit our Wonders Of Nature department soon, and we look forward to seeing you.
Morpho rhetenor rhetenor!!! This is what scientists call the "nominate" form. Basically, it is the form of the species that all other forms are compared to. Its subspecies name is the same as its species name. Other subspecies of rhetenor have varying degrees of white.
Morpho rhetenor cacica, a stunning, must see to believe butterfly! The blue is not just a blue color. Its iridescence seems to glow and hover over the wings. We have these framed for sale in our Wonders of Nature room, and everybody loves them!
Morpho rhetenor cacica form paradisiaca, a transitional form between the subspecies cacica and helena. This was recently named!
Morpho rhetenor helena, perhaps the prettiest subspecies. The contrast of the glowing iridescent blue against the stark paper-white is truly breathtaking!
This is the underside of the Morpho rhetenor butterfly! It is camouflaged like a dead leaf, and when they land in a tree and close their wings, they immediately blend in.
A female Morpho rhetenor cacica. Today this species is bred and farmed to ensure its continued survival. Females fly at the very highest tree tops and are virtually never seen in the wild!
The rarest Morpho of all - and one of the rarest butterflies in the world! This is Morpho rhetenor augustinae!! This butterfly was long thought to be extinct. It lives in a small isolated region of Venezuela.