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Birdbrain? Ask the butterfly!


Butterfly, butterfly

Fly in the sky

Butterfly, butterfly

Flies so high

Butterfly, butterfly

Lands on my thigh

Butterfly, butterfly

Motionlessly lies

Butterfly, butterfly

Gracefully dies

(Full transcript of poem ‘Butterfly, butterfly’ by Adryan Bates.)

Peter Smetacek

For a life that rarely goes beyond a couple of weeks the amount of cloak and dagger was overwhelming. I, for one, stood agape, eyes wide with incredulity and misted over with marvel. Lepidopterist extraordinaire Peter Smetacek held forth on the survival tactics of butterflies. Camouflage – trying to look like leaves and twigs – I had learnt in school. Probably because I didn’t learn biology any further, his account of (Batesian) ‘mimicry’ jolted me. This was knavery of the highest order from something that rarely makes it out of our childhoods. And maybe pages of old, mouldy notebooks and files. Embellishing his florid detailing – Peter was more storyteller than dry professor – were the hundreds of specimens pinned to full-span glory inside glass cases lining the walls of the Butterfly Research Centre – a legacy, museum, and residence.

Butterflies for me were at best a passing interest – interesting me only when they were passing by. When I travel or trek and somebody would point out a pretty one I would be enamoured enough to track it to the next flower or bush. Not further. But after spending a few hours with Peter I emerged from the Centre certain that butterflies will henceforth be more than, as Wordsworth put it, ‘historians of my infancy.’ Or inspiration for conservation artist friends.

Chilasa Cyltia

“The mimicry is a form of survival where a harmless species – invariably tastier too – has evolved to mirror the warning traits of a harmful one aimed at warding off predators,” Peter explained. It is named after the 19th century English naturalist Henry Walter Bates who, after extensive research in the Amazonian rainforests, discovered the phenomenon. There are many forms of mimicry of which the most intriguing one is aposematic colouration. At least the newbie naturalist – me – thought so.

“Just like us humans, birds have different colour associations. While blue and green are considered safe, orange, red and yellow are signs of danger. Thus, birds associate colours with delectable or unpleasant experiences.” (And we say ‘bird brain!’) To show us an example, Peter shone his LED torch on the swallowtail butterfly (Chilasa Cyltia, photograph) known as the ‘common mime’ found in abundance in the hilly regions during monsoon.

“This one mimics the common crow.”

Diematic patterns are another form of defence mechanism using mimicry. The most common technique here is the use of ocellus or false eye designs. Peter calls it the ‘eyespot mimicry.’ (In fact, not once did Peter use the term ‘lepidopterology’ the whole afternoon we were there but ‘study of butterflies.’ Only later did I find it was called thus.)

The lush Kumaon – the Sattal Lake

“These ‘spots’ resemble the eyes of lizards, snakes, raptors and monkeys which keep predators at bay.” An experiment conducted by Stockholm University with 20 peacock butterflies and blue tits is interesting in this regard: when the butterflies were exposed to the tits with their eyespots coloured over, a majority of them were eaten up in no time. But when 34 butterflies were exposed with the eyespots intact, only one got the beak. That is 97 per cent safe, statistically. Then there is ‘snake mimicry’ which is good enough to startle a human on a groggy morning. Very tenderly Peter took out a species of moth from a case and held it out for us to see. The crest of the forewing was lobed and bore markings resembling the mouth and eyes of a snake. Give it some flutter, forget birds, it was good enough to bring out the Bolt in most of us.

The diematic patterns sometimes doesn’t ruffle feathers for very long and the bird resumes attack with an aha! That is when the ocelli becomes handy – the second level of defence. These ‘eyes’ distract the bird’s focus by acting as bullseyes – giving them pecking points away from the body. Thus, the attack hopefully ends with the butterfly losing a little bit of the wing and enough time to escape. Yes, that butterfly with part of the wing missing? It’s a survivor. Then, not all go around with ghoulish eyes and gory colours painted on them; some are of a manor born. The Queen of Spain fritillary has what looks like diamonds attached to her wings while all she wants is to look like dew drops. And there is the Dusky Diadem which could inspire a throne design.

“They are a common sight in these areas,” Peter said referring to the Kumaon, the mountainous region of Uttarakhand bound by Nepal to the east, Tibet to the north, Uttar Pradesh in the south and the rest of the state, known as Garhwal, in the west. The gift of lushness has granted the state many exotic flora and fauna. It is a naturalist paradise. Why Senior Smetacek decided to call it home.

Butterfly Research Centre, Bhimtal

Peter Smetacek’s grandfather hailed from the forested regions of Silesia, a region in central Europe which is today spread over Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. He fought in the Imperial Austrian army during the first World War. When the second World War broke out, his son, Smetacek Sr, Peter’s dad, fled Hitler’s wrath to Calcutta. His love for butterflies, which he got from his own father, eventually brought Smetacek Sr to Uttarakhand which reportedly teemed with more species than many European countries. Smetacek Sr married a local woman and settled down in Bhimtal which the world today recognises as a lepidopteran haven. Peter trapped his first butterfly under his dad’s watch.

“My love for butterflies of course comes from my father.”

But there is more to it than genetic love.

“One of the reasons I dropped out of school was that in 1980 I was forced to read Euclid which had been disproved by Bertrand Russell in 1918. When it comes to butterflies, our learnings are based on what we see and observe. What we study and put down are never assumed.” 

Peter Smetacek has talked about butterflies from local Kumaoni schools to the Oxford in the UK. In fact, sharing his ken is what he is fondest about. Something he does with contagious passion, in a language not weighted down with unwanted scientific jargon. If you want to book a talk or ask if the museum is open, call Peter: 0091 8938896403. Email: petersmetacek@gmail.com 

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