This snowy weather is a good time to revisit the Montreal Botanical Garden displays that we saw on February 21st. The most popular winter feature is probably the display of live butterflies. There are actually two separate areas, one for Creatures of Darkness and another for Creatures of Light.
We visited the Creatures of Darkness greenhouse first. The greenhouse isn’t really dark, but the light is somewhat muted. There are five species listed for this display in the flyer that accompanies the exhibition, but we just saw one, the Giant Owl butterfly (Caligo memnon), pictured above. There were quite a few of them though, and they were easy to spot.
The photo above shows an Owl Butterfly resting in a dim corner with its wings spread. The genus Caligo includes about 20 species. It’s obvious that the common name, Owl butterflies, refers to the owl-eye pattern on the underwings. it’s quite convincing, with even a streak of white mimicking the glint of an eye. Caligo is derived from the latin for darkness. Owl butterflies prefer to fly at dusk, when there are fewer of their avian predators about. Caligos are found in Mexico and south through Central America to South America.
Below is a view of the second and larger butterfly exhibit room, which houses the Creatures of Light.
What a wonderful experience! There are butterflies everywhere, big, colourful tropical beauties, floating, nectering, resting. The most eye-catching are the blue butterflies, Blue Morphos.
So far as I was able to conclude from research via Google, the Blue Morphos include assorted subspecies of Morpho helenor. The Blue Morphos are residents of the neotropical rainforests. Limpida is at home in Costa Rica, while peleides hails from Columbia.
When the Blue Morphos close their wings, they look like an entirely different butterfly, as their underwings are a richly patterned brown. The blue upper wings actually have brownish-grey scales, but their special structure reflects light in a manner that makes them appear blue.
We also saw a few ‘butterfly balls’, a mass of Blue Morphs congregating together. I found references online that say Blue Morphs engage in a mobbing activity meant to discourage predators, so perhaps that’s what is happening in these butterfly balls.
Most Morphos are blue, but there are a few other colours represented in the genus as well. Here is a White Morpho.
Here’s a neotropical resident you might recognise from your own backyard! It’s a Monarch, famous for its incredible migration from the rainforests north to Canada each spring as it follows the blooming of milkweed plants.
New butterflies arrive as a chrysalis and hatch in the greenhouse. You can watch butterflies emerging within the glass nursery. The Montreal Botanical Garden website has this to say about the sourcing of butterflies:
The butterflies in Butterflies Go Free come from butterfly farms in 10 different countries. Butterfly farms are a way to protect butterflies and their habitats by creating fair-trade, sustainable businesses that get local communities involved. By encouraging butterfly farms through the years, the Montréal Insectarium has preserved more than 50 hectares of rainforest in Costa Rica, the equivalent of 100 soccer fields.
The butterflies feed on fruit juices and you can watch an array of butterflies feeding at the plates set out around the greenhouse.
The genus Papilio is also well represented in the greenhouse. Emerald Swallowtails are native to southeastern Asia, including Indonesia and the Phillipines. The green of the Emerald Swallowtail, above, is similar to the blue of the Blue Morphos in that it is not produced by pigments. Rather, it is created by the microstructure of the wing scales. They refract the light and give rise to blue and yellow visible reflections, which give the perception of green.
The colours of the Great Mormon Swallowtail are more subtle. Papilio memnon is a wide-spread butterfly, found from India through southern China and Japan and south. It has four male and many female forms, the females being highly polymorphic. Some forms mimic unpalatable butterflies and as many as 26 female forms have been recorded.
The Paper Kite is also native to the Philipines and Malaysia region of southeast Asia.
In the dim recesses of vegetation, I noticed this pair of Scarlet Swallowtails mating.
Finally, here is a photograph of a group of Great Mormon Swallowtails forming their own butterfly cascade. The Butterflies Go Free exhibit runs at the Montreal Botanical Gardens until April 29th. It’s highly recommended as a beautiful and informative place to visit.