Little jewels

Pamushana | February 2017

February cannot fly by without special mention of the butterflies that flutter about, bringing touches of delicate beauty and colour wherever they go. For this story I wanted to research some interesting lesser known facts about these lovely little creatures, so I was rather taken aback when turning to page 20 of Steve Woodhall’s Field Guide to Butterflies and reading the opening line of, “Butterflies are essentially sex machines.” It goes on to say that a major part of a butterfly’s short life as an adult is devoted to searching for a mate and sexual displays. Male butterflies can be territorial in order to attract the attention of a female with which he can mate. Butterflies have colour vision and the patterns of colour on their wings play a large part in recognising potential mates. Some males have ‘hair pencils’ extruding from their abdomens that exude pheromones that stupefy the female and induce her to mate. (I can’t help thinking that this seems to be like some sort of date rape drug they give the female!) This pheromone is made from chemicals that the male gets from imbibing plants with poisonous alkaloids. In the photo of the bushveld purple tip below you can see it doing exactly this – it is imbibing alkaloids from a string-of-stars (Heliotropium) flower. The toxins also help against defence of predators, and in copulation the male transfers these poisons to the female via his sperm, protecting her from predators too.

The main image is an artistic impression of brown-veined whites (Belenois aurota) mud puddling – a behavior of imbibing salts and amino acids which also aid in a male’s reproductive success, by transferring the precious nutrients to the female during mating. This extra nutrition helps ensure that the eggs survive.

Of course the time for butterflies is the time for flowers, and it’s especially beautiful to see them at their best after a light drizzle. This is a purple cleome or purple mouse whiskers (Cleome hirta), and some interesting research was done on these plants as being powerful tick repellents. Attracting more than birds, bees and butterflies was a Vachellia tortilis (widely known as Acacia tortilis) tree. It seemingly came into bloom overnight and was covered in clusters of creamy, white balls. In time these will become gold brown, curled and twisted pods. It was being used as a perch for many vultures who patiently awaited their turn at a nearby buffalo kill.

This exquisite leopard, easily identifiable by the hole in his nose, was walking just off the roadside one morning. He had a quick drink from a roadside pan, then settled down curled up in the grass about two metres from the road and was completely invisible. But then an impala ram caught his eye, and he sat up for a moment…