Dorset magazine finds out about Butterflies and Moths - Messages from Psyche
PUBLISHED: 14:30 28 October 2011 | UPDATED: 20:11 20 February 2013
Rob Wells talks to Professor Philip Howse, who has been decoding the messages on the wings of butterflies and moths
Professor Philip Howses eureka moment came one evening while he was giving a talk to his village society at Burton Bradstock when, by mistake, he showed a slide of a deaths head hawk moth upside down. Notorious for its role as a symbol of death in the novel and movie The Silence of the Lambs, this moth has a marking on its thorax that looks remarkably like a skull and cross-bones.
Philip suddenly realised that if he looked at the moth as a bird might do, with the head pointing towards it, then the deaths head came to resemble a giant hornet. Here was a new explanation of evolution. By mimicking a dangerous creature, the moth appeared to have evolved a method of scaring away insect-eating birds.
This discovery that insects could appear different from a birds perspective led to the writing of his book Butterflies: Messages from Psyche, in which he has been able to decode many of the symbols embroidered on the wings of butterflies and moths. The book, which has become a surprise publishing hit around the world, was described by Simon Barnes of The Times as the most visually exciting book of the year, while The Independents Michael McCarthy said the book enabled you to see the world in a different way. Recently it was awarded a bronze medal in the environment/ecology/nature category at the Independent Publisher Book Awards 2011, the worlds largest book awards competition. Antenna, the journal of the Royal Entomological Society, said it was fascinating, enthralling an odyssey of epic proportions.
Philip says that we are so used to looking at butterflies and moths in identification guides and collections from above, with the wings fully spread and the head pointing upwards, that we blithely assume that birds and other animals see things the way that we do. But he realised this was a false assumption. Insect-eating birds are short-sighted and have only a narrow field of vision. So they see things quite differently from us and, most important, they see detail before they see the whole picture. Also, most birds can see ultraviolet light, which means they can detect patterns on butterfly wings to which we are oblivious.
Clive Farrell, creator of the Butterfly World project, and a friend of Philips, was so fascinated by the idea that he offered his collection of more than 2,000 slides of butterflies and moths for Philips research. After months of studying pictures of tropical species, as well as common butterflies and moths in the UK, Philip came up with many examples of such hidden images.
The famous French writer Marcel Proust told us not to look for new landscapes but to see with new eyes, says Philip. Thats not easy to do but I soon started seeing things that no one had seen before and I began to read the language on the wings of butterflies and moths. It was like finding the key to an ancient code. Suddenly the secrets of nature become comprehensible.
The wings are like the works of surrealist painters, with unexpected images embedded. Very often these are eye-spots or features of dangerous animals that an insect-eating bird would not want to tangle with, as Philip explains. For example, take the giant Atlas moth from South East Asia, which has snake heads marked out on its wing borders. When it is attacked, it falls to the ground and moves its wings in a figure of eight pattern, so that it looks like a snake writhing about.
Closer to home the eyed hawk-moth, a common British moth, has large eye-spots on its hind wings, which it exposes when threatened, and it has always been assumed that it is mimicking an owl. However, Philip has photographed this moth from a birds-eye view, and realised that he was looking at the face of a fox albeit a diminutive one but birds have little binocular vision and are not good at judging the size of objects. Then the moth started jerking its body to and fro, like a snapping fox, he adds.
When you are out and about in Dorset, take a look at the detail on the wings of some of the common butterflies found in the county in the late summer. The small tortoiseshell has a banded pattern on its fore wings black-yellow-black-yellow-black-white an exact copy of the banding pattern on the body of some of our common bumblebees.
The peacock has large eye-spots resembling the large forward-facing eyes of an owl, and, most remarkable of all, the red admiral has on its underside a representation of the head of a goldfinch, as Philip reveals. The colour bands are easy to see and you can also make out a triangular beak and a blue eye-spot, all cues that small birds can use for rapid recognition of other creatures they encounter when hunting around in the vegetation.
Philips next book on giant silk moths, with photographs supplied by the biologist and photographer Kirby Wolfe, will be published later this year. He has found many more examples of these giant moths mimicking rodents, birds, reptiles, scorpions and frogs. There is even one species that presents itself like the brightly coloured head of a king vulture.
There are some who are sceptical and say there is no experimental evidence to support his views. Philip responds to this by saying that most theories about evolutionary issues, including Darwins natural selection, are difficult to prove experimentally. But when you see examples of the same phenomenon again and again, it is increasingly hard to explain them away as coincidence. However, there is experimental evidence to show that insects with eye-spots do often scare birds away. But the bottom line is that anything that causes momentary confusion in a predator gives a butterfly time to escape.
Professor Philip Howse
Philip Howse was captivated by butterflies and moths from an early age. However, in a successful career as a university teacher and researcher, he devoted himself to the study of termites, ants, cockroaches and pests of horticulture and agriculture. He invented new environmentally friendly techniques for controlling pests without the use of pesticides, work for which he has won many awards, including a Prince of Wales Award for Innovation and an OBE. His work has taken him to many places in Europe and the tropics, and he always travelled with a butterfly net in his suitcase.