This post is about a butterfly, but this first part seems like a tangent because it’s all about me. But it’s really not, as will become apparent later in the post, when I come back to it*.
*In the meantime it sets me up to go on in a self-involved way about my current personal worry du jour, which fits perfectly into my Universal Blog Theory, which states that all blogs- regardless of theme- are really just excuses to go on and on about oneself.
You know that feeling where you get a really good idea, and you think, “Wow, this is a great idea. I should do it right now!” And so you do it, but then a couple days later you’re like, “Why did I think that was such a good idea?” That’s kind of how I feel right now.
No, no, no, there weren’t any drugs or alcohol involved, and no, I didn’t pull a Governor Sanford or anything. Early last week, in a fit of bravado, overconfidence and peer (teammate) encouragement, I applied to upgrade my racing category to Cat3. Thursday morning the request was approved, and I spent much of the rest of the day second-guessing myself. What was I thinking? I’m a 45-year old, not-very-coordinated, was always-the-last-kid-to-be-picked-for-teams suburban schlep with 3 kids and a full-time job. The Cat3’s are full of hyperfast 20-somethings fighting their way up to the 1/2s. I’ll never finish top 5 again; I’ll be that solo straggler who rolls up at the very end* as they’re taking down the finish line and wrapping up the awards ceremony. What was I thinking?
*You know exactly what I’m talking about. That last guy rolls in, and you and your friends all say to each other stuff like, “Good for him!”, or “Hey, the important thing is finishing!” But secretly you’re thinking, “Christ, that guy is just rolling in now?? That poor bastard. Man, it would so totally suck to be him…”
The guy (Tyler2) who beat me in the finish-line sprint at High Uintas is 24. 24! I could have a son that age*! What was I thinking upgrading? I should just be grateful I still have my hair, all my teeth and regular bowel movements!
*I guess it’s possible. Hey, it was the 80’s- people took risks.
But the next night, as I did some research for this post, I found reassurance, and I found it the remarkable life of a butterfly.
On To The Real Post Already
On Thursday I went on and on about last week’s Mill Creek lunch ride. Now let’s back up to the very beginning of that ride, to just moments before I got on the bike. I parked at the lot by the Mill Creek gate, took my bike out of the back and attached my front wheel. Then I changed into biking gear.
Changing In Parking Lots
Tangent: This right here- changing in parking lots- is something I’ve wanted to blog about for a long time, because I know it’s a repeated, common frustrating task that cyclists everywhere deal with.
So often when I’m doing a ride, I’m either coming from work, or going to work. My workplace doesn’t have a strict dress code, but I’m pretty sure sweaty lycra isn’t “business casual.” So I end up doing a lot of changing in parking lots, and in the case of a lunch ride, I change twice- once before, and once following the ride.
Many cyclists change inside their cars, like while sitting in the driver’s seat, but this has 2 big problems. First, it requires a series of fairly limber contortions, which are extra-difficult when you’re over 6’ tall. Second, the time you’re likeliest to get “stuck” is when your shorts are stuck somewhere in the ankles-knees-thighs region, and if someone walks by at that particular moment, well… you’re a middle-aged man sitting alone in a car with no pants on. Enough said.
So the method I use is the Surfer Method. If you’ve spent anytime in Southern California you know what I’m talking about: you wrap a beach towel around the waist, drop your drawers, pull up your shorts, or vice-versa. This method requires fewer contortions, but has 2 risks. First, if the towel comes undone at the wrong moment, you are standing outside with no pants on. And second, it’s actually pretty hard to get the shorts/ underpants/ trousers all the way up to the waist without momentarily flashing a healthy snippet of cheek or crotch. I try to “augment” the Surfer method by standing in between 2 open car doors, so as to limit my angles of exposure, but even so, in a crowded parking lot, where children are present (and in Utah, children are always present), it’s a tricky maneuver.
What I wish was that in our culture the genitalia and buttocks of changing cyclists held the same social status as the breasts of a nursing mother. Normally, it’s not OK for an American woman go walking around in a public place- say a parking lot- with her breasts exposed. But if a woman exposes her breasts in that same parking lot because she’s nursing an infant, well that’s totally OK. If you walk by with your kid, and he/she asks, “Daddy, why is that lady’s shirt open?”, you just say, “Oh that’s OK, she’s breast-feeding her baby.”
Similarly, I think it would be great if I could just get out of the car, stand up, drop my drawers and put my bike shorts on without causing a scene. Little kids would walk by and say, “Mommy, why does that man have no pants on?”, and their mothers would be like, “Oh that’s OK, he’s changing into bike shorts.” , and it would totally be no big deal. Now wouldn’t that be great*?
After I changed, I walked about 20 feet over to the outhouse to pee before the ride, and on the way, something caught my eye- a butterfly. It was a pretty butterfly, black wings with white markings (pic left), and I thought, “Gee, I’m always thinking I should learn more about Butterflies. I should check this one out, try to ID it and learn something about it.” So I stopped, clicked a few photos, and continued on.
Tangent: I can’t count the number of times I’ve noticed something really interesting in the natural world either while peeing, or going to pee*. Examples include the first Gambel-Turbinella hybrid oak I discovered, the first Black-Headed Grosbeak I ID’d, the first Coati I spotted (in Costa Rica), and of course this Butterfly, which as we’ll see in a moment, turned out to be rather remarkable. If I ever write a book, I’ll entitle it something like “Discoveries While Peeing: An Amateur Naturalist Learns About Nature While Urinating Across America.”
*Digging up that old graphic from last August I realize now that I had East-West backwards. Why didn’t anybody tell me? Oh yeah, no one read my blog back then…
That evening I poked around online for about 10 minutes (I don’t own a butterfly guide) and ID’d it.
All About Butterflies
A “butterfly” is an insect of the order Lepidoptera, which includes all butterflies and moths. There are at least 180,000 species of Lepidoptera in the world, which are in turn part of a larger “superorder” called Holometabola which includes more like 700,000 species (including everything from flies to fleas to wasps), all of which have in common the characteristic of radical metamorphosis. This metamorphosis includes 4 distinct life stages, which in Lepidopterans are: Egg, Larva (Caterpillar), Chrysalis (Cocoon) and Adult (Butterfly). All Lepidoptera do this. Any Butterfly or Moth you’ve ever seen used to be a caterpillar.
The Most Bizarre Thing Ever
Tangent: I could stop the post right here, and just marvel at the shocker of commonplace complexity that is radical metamorphosis. Think about it- it’s probably the single most bizarre thing that all of us see all the time. A thing is “born”, and it’s a caterpillar- a long, fat little crawling thing that munches leaves and has dozens of legs. After a while, it exudes this weird silky/mucus-y stuff all around it and then sits still for some weeks/months. Then when it pops out, it’s a completely different thing- a six-legged insect with huge wings and big antennae. How weird is that?
Imagine if people were like that. A pregnant lady goes to the hospital, and gives birth to say, a Guinea Pig. Everyone congratulates her and her spouse, and they take the guinea pig home and coddle it and feed it or whatever. (Yes, I actually was able to find a photo of a woman holding a guinea pig. You can find anything online these days…) They spend the next say, 6 or 7 years feeding, bathing and caring for the guinea pig, maybe even giving it piano lessons or taking it to special little classes for gifted guinea pigs. Then when the guinea pig is maybe 8 or so, it scuttles off to its room/basket/whatever, and starts belching or pooping out all this weird, gross mucus-y stuff, on and on, until it’s completely encased in mucus. The mucus-shell hardens, and the guinea pig just sits there for like a month, after which it wiggles around, the mucus-shell/cocoon break open, and an 8 year old little boy or girl climbs out and starts talking and eating and collecting Pokémon cards. How weird would that be??
Pretty freaking weird, you say, but of course it’s all made-up/what-if. Only it’s not. It happens every year, millions and millions of times all around you*, even in your own backyard, and the proof is right there every time you see a butterfly.
*Only it’s even weirder in real life than in the what-if example above, because a guinea pig and a human are far more structurally similar than a caterpillar and a butterfly.
Butterflies and Moths may seem immediately and obviously different, but apparently entomologists still debate the exact defining characteristics of one or the other. Some of these characteristics are pretty technical details, like the specifics of wing-coupling mechanisms, but the most basic agreed-upon difference seems to be the antennae. Butterflies have long, slender antennae that are club-shaped at the ends, while those of moths look like little combs or feathers.
Of the ~180,000 species of Lepidopterans, maybe 20,000 are butterflies, and of those roughly 5,000 belong to a family Nymphalidae. Most of these species are larger butterflies, with “reduced” (small) forelegs (think Tyrannosaurus Rex) and tend to hold their wings flat when resting, which often makes them a bit easier to ID. Nymphalidae are further divided into a dozen subfamilies, one of which is Limenitidinae, or the “Admiral subfamily”, whose “namesake” genus is Limenitis, the “Admiral” butterflies. Limenitis includes a couple dozen species around the Northern hemisphere, several of which are native to North America. The Mill Creek outhouse butterfly was a Weidemeyer’s Admiral, Limenitis weidemeyerii.
I recently mentioned another Limenitis species, the Red-Spotted Purple, the Chokecherry-munching butterfly native to the Eastern US, but Weidemeyer’s Admiral is a true Utah native, with a distribution limited to the Intermountain West. (Range map right.) At some point in its evolutionary past its ancestors apparently made a host shift to Saliceae, the Willow family, and today it favors the leaves of Cottonwoods and Aspens for egg-laying sites and food, while in Caterpillar stage. Adults feed on nectar, sap and carrion.
Weidemeyer’s Admiral (pic left) isn’t unusual in the Wasatch, but it’s attractive and has a couple of interesting characteristics. The first is super-geeky (and not really relevant to this post) but it’s so cool that I’ll mention it anyway. Last Fall I did a post talking about color vision in birds, mammals and specifically human women. Insects of course have evolved image-resolving vision along a completely separate path than that followed by us vertebrates, using a radically different eye-architecture (compound eye.) Many insects have also independently evolved color vision, including Weidemeyer’s Admiral, which appears to have trichromatic color vision across a similar spectrum to that seen by primates.
Geeky Part, Skip If You Have Low Science-Tolerance
Just like in primates, Admiral (and other) Butterflies have evolved proteins that determine the frequencies to which a given photo-receptor cell (what we call “cones” in our eyes) is receptive. And over the course of butterfly evolution- just like in primate evolution, new proteins, which enabled receptivity to additional frequencies, evolved through amino acid substitutions, in which one amino acid took the place of another at a given spot in a protein, altering that protein (and in this case, its function.) (pic right = butterfly eye, not mine, species unknown. But it’s a cool pic, eh?)
Researchers have tracked down 4 such apparent substitutions in the evolution of Admiral Butterfly eyes, and remarkably, 1 of these seems to be the exact same substitution that occurred in the corresponding primate protein. We’ve seen plenty of examples of convergent evolution in this blog (C4 and CAM photosynthesis were 2 of my favorites) but this one takes the cake. Butterflies and primates are separated by more than half a billion years of evolution, and yet gazillions of generations later effected the exact same amino acid substitution to evolve color vision. That’s pretty wild.
OK, Start Paying Attention Again
OK, now for something way less geeky. Here’s the biggest thing I didn’t know about many male butterflies, including Weidemeyer’s Admiral: they’re aggressively territorial. Males stake out and patrol choice territories from which to keep a (compound trichromatic) eye out for passing females. When another male enters an established territory, the resident male aggressively confronts and chases off (sometimes even dogfighting) the intruder.
Back in the 1970’s, research done on Limenitis butterflies showed that a) they were territorial, and b) the bigger butterfly won male vs. male contests the vast majority of the time, and so for many years it was generally accepted by entomologists who study butterflies that “Bigger is Better.”
Older Is Better
But more recent research suggests that what actually is going on is “Older is Better”, and that the vast majority of such contests are actually won by older males, who generally - but not always- are bigger than younger males. Researchers figured this out by looking at the behavior of related species in which older males are bigger earlier in the season, but actually smaller than younger males later in the season (I don’t know why this is.)
There are 2 hypotheses as to why older males might tend to prevail in such contests. First, older males might just be the toughest- those who’ve been able to survive predators and bad weather and car windshields the longest. Second is that older males take more risks, because the evolutionary cost of doing so is theoretically lower to a male at or near the end of his life than it is toward the beginning (when he still faces a long life of full of possible future breeding opportunities.)
Side Note: This second hypothesis, the “Less-to-Lose” idea, is pretty much the same logic as my Cricket-Chirping “Theory” from last Fall. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once used similar logic in a routine in which he suggested that drivers should be allowed to drive at a speed limit equal to their age.
In any case, I take great comfort from the competitive success of older Weidemeyer’s Admiral males. I’m looking forward to my first race with the Big Boys. Maybe I’ll change my blog-handle from “Watcher” to “Admiral.”
Final Note: Before leaving the whole issue of butterfly territories I should mention that the other decisive factor in such contests is residency. The vast majority of the time, the butterfly who is already resident in the territory will prevail over an intruder, making territory displacement relatively rare (though in the big picture it happens all the time.) Of course, “resident” males tend to be “older” males (who got there first), so it’s not entirely clear how the two factors are related, and which is cause or effect.