Observing Butterfly Courtship Behaviour

In Conservatory by Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory

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People love to look at butterflies, but have you ever watched them for more than a few minutes? Their colours & patterns can be dazzling to watch, and so can their behaviour.

In a concentrated environment like a tropical butterfly Conservatory, where there can be upwards of 2000 free-flying butterflies on any given day, it’s quite easy to sit back, relax, and watch how they interact.

One of the most intriguing (and sometimes most amusing) behaviour to witness can be that of courtship. Each species of butterfly has their own display or “dance”, which may be performed by both sexes or just the male. These courtship displays help to ensure that butterflies mate with their own species, and communicate receptivity. Think of it as the first date for butterflies to begin to get to know each other.

Then there’s the use of pheromones. Pheromones are species-specific, which also ensures that butterflies find the correct mate. Often it’s the males which release a pheromone that acts to both facilitate receptiveness in females and communicate his desirability as a mate. The male will often hover over the female, wafting the pheromone over her – she will signal by body posture and behaviour if she receptive of his attentions.

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Some males have specialized scales on their wings that produce the pheromone; others have special hairs on the side of their thorax. The Rice Paper, however, possesses these

rather spectacular “hair pencils” which they extend from the tip of their abdomen. These hair pencils are what release the pheromones.

A recent visitor, Tara Harvey with Let’s TalkScience, was lucky enough to photograph this fascinating butterfly behaviour between two Rice Papers (photo right)! You can see the male hovering on the right with his hair pencils extruded, while the female sips from a Lantana flower.

You can watch for fascinating behaviour like this and more when you visit the Conservatory. Our friendly interpretive staff are happy to point out things to watch for and explain what you can see. And as always, feel free to share with us your photos and comments!