Imagine yourself in a lush, coastal mangrove swamp in Malaysia. There are stilted trees, thorny vines, and lush foliage so thick you can hardly see ten steps in front of you. In the water at your feet live endangered dugongs, and in the trees above you call proboscis monkeys, who also depend on this unique mangrove ecosystem.
Suddenly, out of the dimly lit foliage around you drifts a delicate, lacey white butterfly! In a wild and dense forest such as this, a graceful butterfly such as the Rice Paper (Idea leuconoe) seems almost other-worldly, and yet coastal mangrove forests are their native home. Perhaps this is why locals of the Malayan peninsula refer to these ethereal animals as “messenger butterflies”, thought to carry words from spirits to the land of the living.
What kind of messages could these butterflies be bringing with them? In Asia, moths & butterflies are held in high esteem as being the souls of those passed-on who have come back to protect their loved ones. In Malaysia, locals watch every spring to see if the white or yellow butterflies are sighted first: if it’s the yellow butterflies, it brings a good omen for abundant milk & butter for the upcoming year.
Since the country of Malaysia is one of the oldest rainforests in the world (next to the Amazon), it has many trees that are prized for their wood, which has led to deforestation and degradation of the unique ecosystem. Perhaps the sight of a Rice Paper butterfly can carry the message of conservation & hope for a forest that is in peril, and is the home to more than one endangered species.
The Rice Paper does carry a literal message, written in the patterning on their wings. The bold black & white coloration is a warning to would-be predators of a toxin contained in their body. Their slow, not-a-care-in-the-world flight may make it seem like they could care less about their surroundings, but in fact, their flight style is for a reason: to advertise the warning pattern and be sure the message is clear.
Since finding these black-and-white butterflies in their natural habitat is a rather rare sighting, it’s especially unique to step into a tropical Conservatory where literally hundreds fill the air. For several decades now, the Rice Paper has also been raised on butterfly farms (to avoid over-collecting of wild populations) and are then shipped as chrysalides to conservatories and display houses around the world, including ours right here in Cambridge, Ontario.
Watching these butterflies float & sail around in our own small tropical forest that is the Conservatory, their relaxed flight can’t help but relay a certain message of peace and calm. The charm of a Rice Paper can also be experienced when they dip down low to frequently land on visitors who are wearing bright colours (see photo below). This has earned the Rice Paper a reputation as being one of our friendliest butterflies.
The Rice Paper is a year-round resident in our Conservatory, and one that we specially feature during December & January for our Flight of White exhibit. This time of year, we fill the air with literally hundreds of these beautiful butterflies. Come surround yourself with these peaceful “butterfly messengers” and perhaps you’ll receive a special message of your own, meant just for you.