book review - amazing butterflies

Sharman Apt Russell

A Talk with Sharman Apt Russell
Author of An Obsession with Butterflies

Why do you think people become obsessed with butterflies?

Aesthetically, butterflies are very compelling because they look oddly and wonderfully designed, like scraps of paisley or a fluttering piece of modern art. We are certainly drawn in by their beauty, by the iridescence of a blue morpho or the perky pattern of a checkerspot or a fritillary. Butterflies are so decorative, and their colors can be so unexpected, that we feel a natural wonder. Some of us feel like a child again, with that sense of being handed an unexpected and undeserved gift. Of course, we imbue butterflies with all kinds of positive feelings, with the joy of flight, a kind of gay quest for nectar and sex. Even a common yellow sulphur or white can seem cheerful, flitting by or basking in the sun. At the same time, as well as being beautiful and varied, the wing patterns of butterflies are quite specific to each species. Get a good guidebook, take a few days, and you’ll be able to recognize most of the major groups in your area. So we can enter into that relationship, of naming and knowing butterflies fairly easily. Once hooked, we begin to see how complex these insects really are, and we become intrigued with their unique reality: their precarious existence as a caterpillar, their difficult relationship to their host plants, their amazing metamorphosis, their cunning tricks to avoid or fool predators, their learning abilities, their mating strategies.


What are some of the myths associated with butterflies?

Well, that may be another important reason why people can have such a deep attachment to butterflies, because for such a long time we have associated butterflies with the human soul. The Greeks used the word psyche for both butterfly and soul. The Egyptians put butterflies on their tombs and sarcophagi. The Aztecs thought butterflies were the returned souls of warriors and sacrificial victims. Across cultures and races, across time, we have seen the butterfly as a symbol of spiritual transformation. We die, we metamorphosize, and we are resurrected. As Pope Gelasius I said in the fifth century, when he compared the life of Christ to that of a caterpillar, Vermis quia resurrexit! The worm has risen!


Who are history’s most fanatic butterfly enthusiasts?

Lord Walter Rothschild certainly was one of history’s most well-known butterfly enthusiasts, perhaps largely because he had the resources to collect butterflies in a very serious way and to hire people all over the world to collect for him. He ended up with some 2.25 million moths and butterflies that he donated to the British Museum. But I think his passion has been matched by countless others, amateur naturalists from the Victorian era, scientists and explorers like Henry Walter Bates, writers like Vladimir Nabokov, and conservationists and biologists today like Robert Michael Pyle.


How did you first become interested in butterflies? Have they always been a part of your life?

Like many children, I had an unpleasant experience keeping caterpillars in a shoebox, watching them spin cocoons (these caterpillars were probably moths), and being shocked when parasitoid wasps emerged instead of butterflies. Later, also like a lot of people, I just took butterflies for granted. Pretty, tiny creatures skipping through the air like fairies, like flying flowers. Ho hum. I had more important things to do. Then, one day, I saw a Western Tiger Swallowtail patrol a river canyon in New Mexico, and I was just overcome. It was so glamorous and gorgeous. I had to wonder how I had never become obsessed before.


What’s the difference between a butterfly and a moth? Is there a difference between them?

I know of one guidebook that says butterflies are “just fancy moths.” Moths and butterflies are both in the order Lepidoptera which contains about 165,000 species. We’ve decided that about 11 percent of these should be called butterflies. The rest are moths, and most are micromoths, usually small and “primitive” in the sense that they evolved first, before butterflies. Both butterflies and another group of moths, called the macromoths, developed from this original group. So butterflies are a later evolution. Most butterflies fly in the day, are brightly colored, and have clubbed antenna. But not all butterflies fit this description. And some moths also fly during the day and are brightly colored.


We occasionally hear of endangered butterfly species. What’s causing this, and what can we do to protect them?

As with most endangered species, the big problem is loss of habitat. A tropical species may only be able to live in a certain area of rainforest, and when that rainforest is logged or destroyed, the butterfly disappears too. In America, one of the first butterflies to be listed under the Endangered Species Act was the El Segundo Blue, which lived on a strip of coastline near the Los Angeles airport. The only way to save that butterfly was to prevent some of its native habitat from being developed and to remove the exotic plants that had invaded that habitat. Rather amazingly, this is exactly what happened. The El Segundo Blue Butterfly Habitat Preserve actually exists right next to LAX.


In your book, you talk about the European Map and the Eastern Comma, the Checkered White and the Stonecrop Blue. You even weave tales of the Two-tailed Pasha. How do butterflies get such exquisite names?

People do that. People wax poetic. Scientists are bedeviled by these common names because they change with locale and custom. In my book, I use common names in the text and also provide the scientific name elsewhere. The truth is that even the scientific names can be wonderfully lyric, with great classical references, like Parnassius apollo and Polygonia comma!


I came away from your book thinking that butterflies are crafty little creatures. Do you think that’s an accurate way to describe them?

You have to be crafty. Caterpillars, in particular, have to be crafty. Everything in the world seems out to kill or eat a caterpillar: pathogens, fungi, parasitic wasps and flies, ants, birds, lizards. Plants are always trying to poison or skewer or repel caterpillars. The adult butterfly that finally emerges out of such a difficult childhood is a miracle. And then for that butterfly to survive—without teeth or claws or any obvious defense—seems another miracle. So, of course, these insects use craft: camouflage, mimicry, distraction, scare tactics. They use their wings to hiss like a snake or they flash eyespots to resemble an owl. Often, their bright colors indicate that they are poisonous to predators, like wearing a T-shirt, “Don’t eat me.” Other butterflies wear the same T-shirt, but aren’t really poisonous at all. They are just being deceptive.


Where did the research for this book take you?

I went to London to visit scientists and collection managers at the Natural History Museum, and that was very grand. Going back in the collections, with drawers and drawers of butterflies collected for the last three hundred years, I felt like some kid in an English fantasy—Harry Potter going to wizardry school! I also spent about a month in Costa Rica, saturating myself with tropical butterflies. Then, of course, I just got to go outside a lot, in my own garden, in the stream areas and meadows and hills near my own house.


What surprised you while researching this book?

I was surprised by that small percentage of butterfly species who rape and who burden the females with very awkward and heavy “chastity belts” so that the females cannot re-mate. This was a pretty fascinating look at evolution and the gender wars and how a new strategy in one sex can start a cascade of responses in the other sex. I was, to be honest, also surprised at how smart butterflies are, that they are capable of  “learning” and of memory. And I was surprised to read that Henry Walter Bates, who traveled for eleven years through out the Amazon collecting butterflies and developing his famous theories on mimicry, was slight and frail and suffered from acne. I grew to be very fond of Mr. Bates.


You talk about a lot of different butterfly species in your book. Do you have a personal favorite?

Oh, the Western Tiger Swallowtail. I love that lemon-yellow color and the presumptuous grandeur of its name, the “tiger stripes.” The Tiger Swallowtail is big and showy and I appreciate that, but it’s also not an uncommon butterfly. It’s democratic. I like that about butterflies—their accessibility. You don’t have to live in a particularly beautiful or exotic or remote place to see these beautiful and exotic and charismatic animals. They’ll flit by in a parking lot. They’re in your own backyard.

To arrange an interview with Sharman Apt Russell please contact:

Lissa Warren, Senior Director of Publicity

(617) 252-5212 /



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