Page images

The second law is, that these resemblances are not indiscriminate, but are limited to certain groups, which in every case are abundant in species and individuals, and can often be ascertained to have some special protection.

The third law is, that the species which resemble or “mimic” these dominant groups, are comparatively less abundant in individuals, and are often very rare.

These laws will be found to hold good, in all the cases of true mimicry among various classes of animals to which we have now to call the attention of our readers.

Mimicry among Lepidoptera. As it is among butterflies that instances of mimicry are most numerous and most striking, an account of some of the more prominent examples in this group will first be given. There is in South America an extensive family of these insects, the Heliconidæ, which are in many respects very remarkable. They are so abundant and characteristic in all the woody portions of the American tropics, that in almost every locality they will be seen more frequently than any other butterflies. They are distinguished by very elongate wings, body, and antennæ, and are exceedingly beautiful and varied in their colours ; spots and patches of yellow, red, or pure white upon a black, blue, or brown ground, being most general. They frequent the forests chiefly, and all fly slowly and weakly; yet although they are so conspicuous, and could certainly be caught by insectivorous birds more easily than almost any other insects, their great abundance all over the wide region they inhabit shows that they are not so persecuted. It is to be especially remarked also, that they possess no adaptive colouring to protect them during repose, for the under side of their wings presents the same, or at least an equally conspicuous colouring as the upper side; and they may be observed after sunset suspended at the end of twigs and leaves where they have taken up their station for the night, fully exposed to the attacks of enemies if they have any. These beautiful insects possess, however, a strong pungent semi-aromatic or medicinal odour, which seems to pervade all the juices of their system. When the entomologist squeezes the breast of one of them between his fingers to kill it, a yellow liquid exudes which stains the skin, and the smell of which can only be got rid of by time and repeated washings. Here we have probably the cause of their immunity from attack, since there is a great deal of evidence to show that certain insects are so disgusting to birds that they will under no circumstances touch them. Mr. Stainton has observed that a brood of young turkeys greedily devoured all the worthless moths he had amassed in a night's “sugaring,” yet one after another seized and rejected a single white moth which happened to be among them. Young pheasants and partridges which eat many kinds of caterpillars seem to have an absolute dread of that of the common currant moth, which they will never touch, and tomtits as well as other small birds appear never to eat the same species. In the case of the Heliconidæ, however, we have some direct evidence to the same effect. In the Brazilian forests there are great numbers of insectivorous birds—as jacamars, trogons, and puff birds —which catch insects on the wing, and that they destroy many butterflies is indicated by the fact that the wings of these insects are often found on the ground where their bodies have been devoured. But among these there are no wings of Heliconidæ, while those of the large showy Nymphalidæ, which have a much swifter flight, are often met with. Again, a gentleman who had recently returned from Brazil stated at a meeting of the Entomological Society that he once observed a pair of puff birds catching butterflies, which they brought to their nest to feed their young; yet during half an hour they never brought one of the Heliconidæ, which were flying lazily about in great numbers, and which they could have captured more easily than any others. It was this circumstance that led Mr. Belt to observe them so long, as he could not understand why the most common insects should be altogether passed by Mr. Bates also tells us that he never saw them molested by lizards or predacious flies, which often pounce on other butterflies.

If, therefore, we accept it as highly probable (if not proved) that the Heliconidæ are very greatly protected from attack by their peculiar odour and taste, we find it much more easy to understand their chief characteristics —their great abundance, their slow flight, their gaudy colours, and the entire absence of protective tints on

their under surfaces. This property places them somewhat in the position of those curious wingless birds of oceanic islands, the dodo, the apteryx, and the moas, which are with great reason supposed to have lost the power of flight on account of the absence of carnivorous quadrupeds. Our butterflies have been protected in a different way, but quite as effectually; and the result has been that as there has been nothing to escape from, there has been no weeding out of slow flyers, and as there has been nothing to hide from, there has been no extermination of the bright-coloured varieties, and no preservation of such as tended to assimilate with surrounding objects.

Now let us consider how this kind of protection must act. Tropical insectivorous birds very frequently sit on dead branches of a lofty tree, or on those which overhang forest paths, gazing intently around, and darting off at intervals to seize an insect at a considerable distance, which they generally return to their station to devour. If a bird began by capturing the slow-flying, conspicuous Heliconidæ, and found them always so disagreeable that it could not eat them, it would after a very few trials leave off catching them at all; and their whole appearance, form, colouring, and mode of flight is so peculiar, that there can be little doubt birds would soon learn to distinguish them at a long distance, and never waste any time in pursuit of them. Under these circumstances, it is evident that any other butterfly of a group which birds were accustomed to devour, would be almost equally well protected by closely resembling a Heliconia externally, as if it acquired also the disagreeable odour; always supposing that there were only a few of them among a great number of the Heliconias. If the birds could not distinguish the two kinds externally, and there were on the average only one eatable among fifty uneatable, they would soon give up seeking for the eatable ones, even if they knew them to exist. If, on the other hand, any particular butterfly of an eatable group acquired the disagreeable taste of the Heliconias while it retained the characteristic form and colouring of its own group, this would be really of no use to it whatever; for the birds would go on catching it among its eatable allies (compared with which it would rarely occur), it would be wounded and disabled, even if rejected, and its increase would thus be as effectually checked as if it were devoured. It is important, therefore, to understand that if any one genus of an extensive family of eatable butterflies were in danger of extermination from insect-eating birds, and if two kinds of variation were going on among them, some individuals possessing a slightly disagreeable taste, others a slight resemblance to the Heliconidæ, this latter quality would be much more valuable than the former. The change in flavour would not at all prevent the variety from being captured as before, and it would almost certainly be thoroughly disabled before being rejected. The approach in colour and form to the Heliconidæ, however, would be at the very first a positive, though perhaps a slight advantage; for although at short distances this variety would be easily distinguished and devoured, yet

« EelmineJätka »