With many parts of the nation gripped in arctic cold and blizzard conditions, we return to the rainforests of Central America where we recently visited squirting termites, fungus gardening ants, and six-legged bodyguards of bull horn acacias. This week we meet two members of the brushfooted butterfly clan known as peacocks. Our first guest, the beautiful white peacock butterfly, is a resident not only of Central America, but also much of South America and as far north as Florida and Texas in the United States. The banded peacock is also a resident of Central America and wanders into the United States where it sometimes visits Texas and has been found occasionally in Kansas.
Throughout much of their range, peacocks can be found almost year round in disturbed open meadows and swampy areas where food plants for the larvae are found. Food plants for caterpillars of the white peacock include water hyssop, blechum, and frogfruit. The female banded peacock is a bit more selective regarding where she places her eggs, using members of the Acanthaceae such as Ruellia (wild petunia) as food for her young. Tropical rainforests are among the most biologically diverse of all ecosystems on our planet, housing an astounding array of plant species. The Nature Conservancy estimates roughly 1500 species of flowering plants exist in a four square mile area of tropical rainforest. The fidelity of female peacock butterflies to a relatively small number of plants on which she places her eggs has resulted in an interesting strategy employed by male peacock butterflies to secure a mate.
In a fascinating series of studies, Robert Lederhouse and his colleagues observed male white peacock butterflies patrolling roughly circular zones of vegetation in swampy areas in the Florida everglades. When other male peacocks, or any flying insects for that matter, entered the 15 meter diameter no-fly zone of a male, the interloper was summarily harassed and chased from the area. On closer examination, the scientists discovered water hyssop, the food plant needed for larval development, in each of the defended no-fly zones. A similar behavior of chasing away interloping males was also observed in the banded peacock butterfly. If you are a male peacock butterfly, it appears that one way to get a mate is to hang around the plant resource where the female must come to find the food for her babes. Sounds a little like an episode of Seinfeld doesn’t it? Remember the one called “The Bookstore” where Jerry provides dating insight to George in the form of “First it was the health club, then the supermarket, now the bookstore. “ It seems like insects always figure these things out before we do.
Is this white peacock butterfly on the lookout for interloping males or a potential mate?
We thank the hearty crew of BSCI 339M, ‘Mayan Culture and the Interface between Tropical Rainforests and Coral Reefs’ for providing the inspiration for this Bug of the Week. The interesting article “Host plant-based territoriality in the white peacock butterfly, Anartia jatrophae (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae)” by Robert C. Lederhouse and colleagues, and “Caterpillars of Eastern North America” by David L. Wagner were used as a references.