The Butterfly Effect

Sabi Sand | December 2020

They say that the small beating of a butterfly’s wings can cause hurricanes on the other side of the world. But what would happen if that beat suddenly stopped? Would chaos unfold? Would life, as we know it carry on? Or would the Butterfly Effect transpire?

The Butterfly Effect can be described as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”, or in other words, the tiniest of actions in a big system will have profound, unexplained and even complex consequences. The idea behind this is known as Chaos Theory, developed by meteorology professor Edward Lorenz in 1963.

In nature, we see these consequences every day, from the eruption of alates in their nuptial flight post the perfect summer rain, to nests made in tree cavities, once holding a branch which an elephant broke off to feed on. Small changes can alter our entire ecosystem and sometimes it’s the smallest of changes that have the biggest impact.

Artwork by Kirsten Tinkler

In South Africa there are over 660 species of butterflies, many of which are endemic. Unique members of the order Lepidoptera, we can easily ID these flying insects for their colourful wings which are held together at rest. But there’s more to these colourful creatures than first meets the eye. Microscopic scales cover the butterfly’s wings and it’s these scales that form the structure for the patterns that provide the bright and dull colours used for attraction and deception. The Latin name Lepidoptera actually means scale [Lepido] and wing [pteron]. Delving further into the science of these scales, we’ve learnt that certain colours are not actually made from colourful cells, rather with special pigments which absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others. The wavelengths reflected are what gives the butterfly its colour and black absorbs all wavelengths. For example, a butterfly that looks green has scales that soak up the blue and red wavelengths, reflecting green.

These incredibly complex fluttering beauties start off as more basic beasts in the form of a larva (caterpillar). When fully grown and at nearly 3 000 times their original size these creatures begin their journey for change. Finding a branch or leaf to hang up-side-down, they form a protective covering called a chrysalis. Within this delicate structure the caterpillars body effectively breaks down, metamorphizing into a completely new creature – a butterfly. I would imagine an incredibly complicated instruction manual is needed to deliver the precise changes needed to re-make this insect. New complex eyes, a new respiratory system that can handle the rigors of flying and a brand-new heart.

Butterflies have been a symbol for change and transformation for many decades, however very specific climatic and environmental conditions are needed for them to survive. Butterflies are also responsible for many genetic variations in plant species. Travelling across the country (some even migrating out of South Africa) means that nectar collected from various flowers is transmitted far and wide to plant species far away. With the global decline of our bee population, butterflies have become even more key in the collection and delivery of pollen in plants. A decline in butterflies could cause catastrophic effects throughout the ecosystem, rippling through the world.

It’s the choices we make that have an impact on the future. Global warming, pesticides and habitat loss are the biggest threats to butterfly population. But what would happen if butterflies vanished? What if a small change in decision caused a huge chain of events?

Even if you are standing still, change will happen.

Every choice you ever made has led you to right now, reading this. While you exist, every moment matters; those bad choices you made have led you to the best days of your life.

So stay, for the bad choices and for the great ones. Stay. Cause a few hurricanes.