September 7, 2021 | David F. Coppedge

Design of Life 2021 Update: Butterflies

Illustra Media’s Design of Life trilogy opened many eyes to natural wonders.
Here’s news about butterflies, featured in their film Metamorphosis.

 

Before reading this entry, watch the excerpts from Illustra Media’s beautiful documentary, Metamorphosis: The Beauty and Design of Butterflies. The three clips will give you a taste of the hour-long treat you will have watching the whole film.

The film was released a decade ago but never grows old. What more have scientists discovered about butterflies since 2011? For the convenience of researchers, educators and home school parents, here are some previous reports. CEH has reported on butterfly science in these articles:

  • 21 Jan 2021: Delicate Acrobats: Butterflies and Jellyfish Use Physics to Perfection.
  • 14 Mar 2020: Small Animals Strut Their Stuff. How butterflies make super-black scales.
  • 29 Jan 2020: Good Science Bears Fruit. How butterflies prevent overheating.
  • 26 Nov 2019: Convergent Evolution: A Better Explanation. How evolutionists get around a contradiction.
  • 19 Jun 2018: Bugs Ride on the Wings of the Wind. News about the Painted Lady’s incredible migration.
  • 15 Mar 2018: Design of Life Update.
  • 08 Mar 2017: Design of Life Update: Butterflies.

In addition, Evolution News, the Intelligent Design news site, has posted several articles about butterflies:

  • 23 Jan 2020: Bringing Past Articles Current to 2020: Butterflies, Hummingbirds, More
  • 25 Dec 2019: How Butterflies “Evolve” by Design
  • 22 Aug 2016: Butterflies, Birds, Sea Turtles, and Whales — News from the Design of Life
  • 13 Oct 2015: “Design of Life” Evidence Continues Pouring Forth: Butterflies
  • 19 Jul 2013: More Findings Shed Light on the Complexity of Butterflies

What is new in 2021 about butterflies? Follow these interesting stories:

2021 News About Lepidopterans

Heliconius butterfly (Illustra Media)

Butterfly wing clap explains mystery of flight (Lund University, Sweden). Researchers put butterflies in wind tunnels to observe how they launch under controlled conditions, and also watched them in nature. Their results were published last January.

The fluttery flight of butterflies has so far been somewhat of a mystery to researchers, given their unusually large and broad wings relative to their body size. Now researchers at Lund University in Sweden have studied the aerodynamics of butterflies in a wind tunnel. The results suggest that butterflies use a highly effective clap technique, therefore making use of their unique wings. This helps them rapidly take off when escaping predators.

Cryptochrome 1 mediates light-dependent inclination magnetosensing in monarch butterflies (Nature Communications). Illustra presented the theory that magnetic particles in the butterfly body act as compasses for orienting with the earth’s magnetic field. This paper shows evidence for an even more profound mechanism that involves quantum mechanics in certain proteins in the eye.

The ability of many animals to sense and exploit the Earth’s magnetic field for directional information during long-distance migration underscores the biological importance of this enigmatic sense. Two main models have been proposed to explain its biological basis: a magnetic particle-based process mediated by magnetite crystals functioning as compass needles, and a radical-pair-based process relying on the spin chemistry of radical-pair reactions initiated by light in specialized photoreceptors.

Those interested in “this enigmatic sense” can follow the arguments for this model in the open-access paper published 3 Feb 2021. How did this sense make it into a flyer weighing about one gram?

The unresolved phylogenomic tree of butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera): assessing the potential causes and consequences (Rota et al., bioRxiv 11 April 2021). Have Darwinians made any progress with a story about how butterflies evolved? Their answer has good news and bad news that undermines the good news. The final answer is out there in futureware.

Overall, the results from the nucleotide alignment are more robust to the various perturbations of the data that we carried out. However, the lack of support for much of the backbone within Ditrysia makes the current butterfly and moth tree of life still unresolved. We conclude that taxon sampling remains an issue even in phylogenomic analyses, and recommend that poorly sampled highly diverse groups, such as Gelechioidea in Lepidoptera, should receive extra attention in the future.

2021 News About Monarch Butterfly Migrations

The annual 3,000-mile monarch migration is heading toward Chicago (Phys.org, 3 Sept 2021). This story shares some of the emotional excitement of people in Chicago finding Monarch butterflies swarming on the city as they head south. “‘It’s like a Disney movie, except better” exclaimed one observer. Some scientists are tagging butterflies in hopes of finding them in Mexico.

“This is really one of the big mysteries of the world,” he said. “The most recent butterflies that have been in the areas where they’re going are their great-great-great-grandparents.”

Monarch butterfly: Facts about the iconic migratory insects (Live Science). On July 20, Erin Banks Rusby wrote this quick guide to the Monarch migration. The article reiterates a number of facts portrayed in the Illustra film. The only mention of evolution is when Rusby says that “Monarchs have evolved to tolerate the toxic sap” of milkweeds, but black-headed grosbeaks “have evolved to enjoy the flavor of monarchs” in spite of the cardenolides. Those sentences assume evolution instead of explaining it.

Monarch butterfly feeding

Monarch feeding on milkweed. Credit: Illustra Media

Why is the eastern Monarch butterfly disappearing? (Michigan State University). Illustra’s film presented unforgettable cinematography of millions of monarch butterflies congregating in remote Mexican montane forests, and then re-awakening in glorious air shows of color in spring. Since 2011, there has been a great deal of concern about declining monarch populations. Many feel this is due to indiscriminate spraying of crops that kill the milkweeds that monarchs depend on for laying their eggs. With the help of volunteer citizen scientists, Michigan State researchers collected big data about monarch numbers, and evaluated three leading explanations for the decline: pesticides, mortality during overwintering, and climate change. They decided all three explanations are partly true.

Monarch butterflies raised in captivity can still join the migration (The Conversation). Two biologists share evidence that monarchs raised in captivity know where to go when released. This supports the hypothesis that butterflies are born with a mental map to guide them. Experiments in a flight simulator showed that the butterflies needed some sunshine after their captive breeding in order to recalibrate their compass. Remarkably, they were able to place tiny radio transmitters on the wings to track the butterflies after release.

We detected 29 butterflies at the beginning of migration and found that, given some time outdoors, these butterflies were able to get their bearings and fly southward. This suggests that under certain controlled conditions, raising monarchs indoors may not affect their orientation and ability to start migration.

One of the best parts of this article is a video showing the butterflies swarming in Mexico from the point of view of a small robotic flyer. It was built to resemble a hummingbird so that the butterflies would not be afraid of it. The footage is truly stunning!

Can You Top This —

Credit: Gerard Talavera and Roger Vila, CSIC

Butterflies cross the Sahara in longest-known insect migration (University of Reading, 22 June 2021). Everybody loves the awe-inspiring migration of the monarch butterfly, but the Painted Lady of Europe excels on the migration prize. (This is an update to our report about this from 19 Jun 2018.) This research, published in by Hu et al. in PNAS 29 June 2021, investigated how these delicate insects are able to cross the vast Sahara desert on their annual trips between Europe and Africa.

The team calculated that the butterflies must fly non-stop during the day and rest during night to cross the Sahara, making stops to feed on nectar. This is similar to the pattern in which night-flying songbirds migrate.

Amazing FactsThey concluded the butterflies must fly up to 1-3km above sea level to take advantage of favourable tailwinds, as their maximum self-powered flying speed of around 6 metres per second would make a Sahara crossing extremely difficult.

The researchers used observations of similar butterfly species to calculate that Painted Ladies have enough body fat after metamorphosis to sustain 40 hours of non-stop flying, and keep this topped up by feeding on nectar whenever possible in order to cross the Sahara.

And so in the intervening years, scientific discoveries have served to amplify the “beauty and design of butterflies” that was so marvelously portrayed in Illustra Media’s documentary film. It’s a sign of good science when one’s explanation for a phenomenon becomes more strongly confirmed over time.

 

 

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