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Costa Rica is a Natural Butterfly Garden!

A world of transformations and color

Blue Morpho Butterfly  (Morpho peleides). Heliconius Butterfly (Heliconius hecale zuleika)  Any butterfly garden will show you the great and diverse world of butterflies. Economically, butterflies are important by virtue of their role as one of the major agents of pollination (which enables to harvest the human food), and Costa Rica, with its extraordinary diversity of insects, including the butterflies, is not the exception. As a Lepidoptera, the butterfly is notable for their unusual life cycle with a larval caterpillar stage, an inactive pupal stage, and a extraordinary metamorphosis into a familiar and colorful winged adult form.

Most species are day-flying, as the Heliconius Butterfly, so they regularly attract the attention, like the Blue Morpho Butterfly, which does not pollinates any flower because it feeds on rotten fruits. But the diverse patterns formed by its brightly colored wings and its erratic yet graceful flight have made butterfly watching a popular hobby and any butterfly garden a tourist attraction in the rainforest.

Butterflies of Costa Rica

*Because of the very delicate butterfly body and wings structure, please don't try to catch or hold the butterflies.

Map of Blue Morpho Butterfly in Costa Rica Blue Morpho Butterfly  (Morpho peleides). Summary of Blue Morpho Butterfly facts
Scientific Name: Morpho peleides
Habitat: Tropical Rainforest (see map →) from 0 to about 1,500 m (5,000 feet) of altitude.
Length: Wingspread: 12.7-15.5 cm (5-6.1 pulg.).
Lifespan: The life cycle from egg to adult is 115 days approx. (1)
Host Plants: Eggs are left singly in leaves of shrubs and vines of family Fabaceae (or Leguminosae), of some genera including Mucuna, Lonchocarpus, Machaerium y Pterocarpus.
Feeds on: Rotten fruits, exposed fruit pulp, sap emanating from trees and vines barks.
Toxicity: The Blue Morpho Butterfly is not toxic nor poisonous.
Predators: Birds like Rufous-tailed Jacamar and big flycatchers.
Where to See it: At Arenal Eco Zoo, El Castillo, San Carlos; The Butterfly Farm, La Guácima, Alajuela.

  • Iridescent blue color on the superior side of wings, which actually is an optic effect of the crystalline structure of its scales (structural color, which depends upon the angle of vision in a similar way as the variable color effect seem in a CD or at oil on water).
  • The Blue Morpho Butterfly have a random and erratic flying path, as evolutive adaption for being difficult to be caught by its predators.
  • The blue and brown contrast while flying helps in its scape strategies.
  • Due to the prior scape capabilities, it doesn't need to have toxins in its body as the Heliconius butterfly does.

Blue Morpho Butterfly (Morpho peleides).
A small butterfly (Eurybia lycisca) over an heliconia flower (Heliconia latispatha). The butterfly Eurybia lycisca measures almost 3 cm. This butterfly (Eurybia lycisca) features iridiscent blue color in both sexes. Eurybia lycisca butterfly has metallic blue eyes and an extraordinarily long proboscis. Butterfly Garden (Anartia jatrophae). Butterfly Garden (Eurytides euryleon clusoculis). Heliconius Butterfly (Heliconius melpomene) mimics aposematic coloration. The plant is a nectar provider (Lantana camara).
© 2010 Olger Aragón, Foto Koky, La Fortuna de San Carlos.
Rain Forest icon: Blue Morpho Butterfly (Morpho peleides). Toas Swallowtail Butterfly (Heraclides thoas) has a bird dropping disguised caterpillar! Passionflower Butterfly (Heliconius hecale zuleika) has true aposematic coloration as a warning for toxins. Malachite Butterfly (Siproeta stelens biplagiata), is frequently seen at Guanacaste. Well known Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) migrates here from North America. Caterpillar of Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Caterpillar of Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Blue Morpho butterfly showing its underside with brown color. A butterfly that usually visits the mud (Eurytides euryleon clusoculis). This butterfly species (Dryas iulia) is the solely member of its genus. The Owl Butterfly (Caligo eurilochus sulanus) is the largest of Costa Rica butterflies. The Owl Butterfly (Caligo eurilochus sulanus) with its eyespots. Owl Butterfly (Caligo eurilochus sulanus) showing its proboscis rolled. Butterfly (Eurybia lycisca) showing its iridiscent blue color. Owl Butterfly (Caligo eurilochus sulanus) feeding on rotten fruit. Owl Butterfly (Caligo eurilochus sulanus) with proboscis extended. Transparent wings butterfly (Cithaerias menander) inhabiting the Tropical Rainforest of Golfito, Southern Pacific.
Golfo Dulce Lodge (Golfito, Puntarenas)
Blue Butterfly (Memphis sp.) from the Tropical Rainforest at Southern Pacific.
Golfo Dulce Lodge (Golfito, Puntarenas)
Both the brown underside and its blue opposite of a Morpho Butterfly (Morpho peleides).
Blue Morpho Butterfly (Morpho peleides) with extended wings.
© 2010 Olger Aragón, Foto Koky, La Fortuna de San Carlos.
Costa Rica Butterfly Gallery

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)  A butterfly is an insect of the order Lepidoptera. This means that all butterflies have six legs, but in the family Nymphalidae (which groups the most of the species) the forelegs are modified in such a way that have a reduced size and are almost imperceptible, hence most butterflies appear as having only four legs (which are called the walking legs) (2). Such reduced forelegs play the role of being chemoreceptors organs (for "tasting"). As a Lepidoptera, the butterfly is notable for its unusual life cycle with a larval caterpillar stage, an inactive pupal stage, and a spectacular metamorphosis into a familiar and colorful winged adult form.

In more exact terms, the butterfly life cycle have four stages:
1) Egg: embryo initial period.
2) Larva (or Caterpillar): is the stage exclusively for feeding and growing.
3) Pupa (or Chrysalis): is the resting and inactive stage & tissues metamorphosis from larva to adult.
4) Adult butterfly (or Imago): is the adulthood stage, sexual maturity & flight capability.

 Endowed with a strong mandibled mouth, the butterfly caterpillar can be considered as an legged stomach that feeds, feeds and feeds! ... With the only purpose of grow. But also butterfly larvae feature a wide variety of defenses against predator that feed on them (insects, frogs, birds or monkeys), such that urticant spines or hairs, by having toxins that make it a noxious mouthful or by disguising by means of non eatable or dangerous appearance mimicry. That is the case of the Toas Swallowtail Butterfly (Heraclides thoas) caterpillar, whose bird dropping disguise protection is enhanced by its habit of resting on the upper side of leaves. Also exist the camouflage protection by which the butterfly larvae are blended with their background, and making difficult to be detected.

 The protection against predators also exists in the adult butterfly, it can be hiding by camouflage (as the Blue Morpho butterfly does at resting because its brownish lower-side wing coloration blends well with trunk and rock surfaces), or advertising it presence by mimicry, several species (even unrelated) evolve to resemble each other in warning by conspicuous coloration to predators, called aposematic coloration, in order to spare the damage (reducing predator sampling rates) because of the avoidance over the possibly noxious or unpalatable butterfly. Mimicry can occurs in two ways: a true dangerous butterfly group warns, with conspicuous similar wing coloration patterns, about toxins presence in their bodies (which is called Müllerian mimicry), whereas Heliconius Butterfly (Heliconius erato). See pictures in Gallery.another group only have a close appearance to the noxious one, with no damage capability, that fool predators that avoids the first group by instinct, getting this way the vital protection (this is called Batesian mimicry).

Heliconius Butterfly group from American tropical rain forest is the classical model for Müllerian mimicry, so as an example Heliconius melpomene (solitary and rare, avoids direct sunlight) and Heliconius erato (familiar garden visitor and the commonest Heliconius in Costa Rica, flies in direct sunlight) belongs to the same mimicry group, being a good example of true unpalatable butterflies.

 The adult Butterfly consume only liquids and these are sucked by means of its proboscis. It do this for water, for energy from sugars in nectar and for sodium and other minerals which are vital for its reproduction so. Although the butterfly feeds primarily on nectar from flowers (and thus its essential ecological role as pollinators each time a butterfly visit a flower), is important the nourishment obtained sipping water from damp patches as well as from tree sap, rotting fruit, dung, and dissolved minerals in wet sand or mud (as butterfly Eurytides euryleon clusoculis).

One of the main characteristic of the butterfly wings are their minute scale covering, which creates the butterfly color in two different ways:
Pigment Coloration: There are scales which are pigmented with melanin and pterins that give them the colors black, brown, orange, red, yellow or white.
Structural Coloration: There are also scales whose structure and exact arrangement interacts with the light as a whole generating iridescent hues of blue, green and violet. And how these astonishing and fantastic iridescent hues are created is one of the most extraordinary demonstrations of light optical physics in a living creature. Those hues in the wings of certain butterflies are not by pigments but the result of coherent scattering of light by the crystal microstructural arrangement of the scales.

Blue Morpho Butterfly  (Morpho peleides).As an example of structural color, the Blue Morpho Butterfly (Morpho peleides) is colored in metallic, shimmering and iridescent shades of blue. But unlike most butterflies, the Blue Morpho coloration is not a result of pigmentation. They are brown by pigments, but by virtue of their complex crystalline structured scales that absorbs all colors of the spectrum except blue, then appear of that color. Blue Morpho butterfly is a rainforest dweller but will venture into sunny clearings in order to warm itself. Blue Morpho butterflies don't visit flowers, instead they feed on the juices of rotting fruits with which they may also be lured, as well on trees bark sap. The entire life cycle of the Blue Morpho butterfly, from egg to death, is approximately of 115 days.

Notes & References:
Young, A. M. & Muyshondt, A. (1973). The biology of Morpho peleides in Central America. Carib.J. Sci. 13: 1-49.
DeVries, P. J. (1987). The Butterflies of Costa Rica. And Their Natural History. Princeton University Press.
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