Happy Friday, Butterfly Fans!!! We hope you’re having a great Friday. This week we thought we would introduce you to a large family of butterflies from South and Central America, the Ithomiid Butterflies. The Ithomiids comprise a family of about 500 species, almost exclusively in the tropics of the western hemisphere. This is somewhat unusual for butterflies since most butterfly families have representatives on the other continents as well. This would tend to indicate that the Ithomiids didn’t really come into being until after the continents split apart. Also the Ithomiids are almost totally confined to jungle habitats where the temperatures are consistently warm and the humidity is high. These butterflies rarely venture into the sunlight, and they rarely emerge more than a few feet from the rainforest edges. For this reason, very few collectors in the world have actually seen a live Ithomiid butterfly!!! Despite their confined habitat and relative unfamiliarity to collectors, Ithomiids are one of the most interesting butterfly families to study.
Ithomiid butterflies are also called the “Clearwings” because most of the species have virtually no pigmented scales on their wings. In addition to the clearwing group, the Ithomiids also include species that are predominantly orange or black with white and yellow markings. The Ithomiids are somewhat small by butterfly standards, with wingspans in the 1 to 3 inch range. Some of the most obvious distinguishing features besides the transparent wings are their disproportionately long antennae extending from relatively small heads, very slender bodies, and forewing shapes that often “hook” backwards at the bottom. Their thin bodies do not allow for strong wing muscles, so the flight of most Ithomiids is quite weak, rarely faster than a few inches per second! Watching them fly is like watching a downy feather fall on a calm day. It seems as if an unfortunate sneeze could blow them away. They are very easy to catch. Luckily for them, they are very distasteful to predators. However, unlike other distasteful butterflies, the Ithomiid toxins are not derived from caterpillar food plants, but rather from the distasteful flowers they feed on as adults. Predators avoid Ithomiids. Also, many Ithomiid species resemble each other, thus reinforcing their recognition by predators.
Ithomiids tend to seek out the most shady and wettest areas of the rainforest. You will often find them in “pockets” about 20 to 50 feet in diameter. Usually we have seen them in these areas with many species flying together, all fluttering weakly from plant to plant. The number of individuals in these pockets usually seems to be in the hundreds, and every time you turn around there are more of them. Many Ithomiids have unknown juvenile stages, and this is an area where amateur collectors can make a significant contribution to the science of Entomology. Many of the Ithomiids that are well known have chrysalids that are metallic in appearance. These little jewels hang upside-down from the bottoms of leaves as they transform into adult butterflies. Although Ithomiids are fairly widespread in terms of overall distribution, they are highly localized. It is common to find two Ithomiid pockets a few hundred feet apart, and have completely different species mixes. They may remain separated for decades by streams or roads and never cross the distance!!!
In our photos today we have shown a variety of Ithomiid butterflies. At first glance, you may think they look alike, especially the clearwings. But take a closer look, and you’ll find that there are subtle differences. One means that Entomologists use to classify them is to examine the pattern of their wing vein structure. If you look closely at their “skeletonized” wings, you’ll see that the number and placement of the veins differs significantly. There are relatively few Ithomiid specialists in the field of Lepidoptera research. The Ithomiids are certainly a family where many new species await discovery.
Being relatively small butterflies, the Ithomiids don’t attract too much attention among collectors. Ithomiids are a specialty that only the more advanced collectors seem to truly appreciate. But you’d be surprised how many people notice them when you “sprinkle” them in with some more showy species. We always have Ithomiids on display in our Wonders Of Nature department in our collage frames. They’re great as part of an assortment, because they blend well with the other species in the frame. If you’re thinking about a modest addition to your collection, a small grouping of Ithomiids will certainly set your collection apart. Next time you’re in the neighborhood, we hope stop in and see some of these fascinating butterflies. See you on the trail!
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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.