Butterflies of the
Amazon and Andes
Family - NYMPHALIDAE
subfamily - DANAINAE
Tribe - ITHOMIINI
subtribe - MELINAEINA
Ecuador © Tony
The Ithomiini comprises of 376 known species,
although it is likely that at least another 30 will be discovered in
the near future. All are confined to the neotropical region.
are unpalatable to birds, and are consequently mimicked in
appearance by many other species. These include other unpalatable
species ( Müllerian mimics ), not only from the Ithomiinae but also
from several other butterfly families. There are also a large number
of edible species ( Batesian mimics ) which have evolved similar
patterns. Birds have the ability to memorise butterfly patterns and
so learn to avoid eating noxious species, but are also fooled into
ignoring similarly marked edible species.
characterised by having small eyes, slender abdomens and long
drooping antennae that lack distinct clubs. Males have a plume of
long androconial scales or "hair pencils" on the costa of their
hindwings. These are hidden from view when the butterflies are at
rest, but are displayed when the wings are held open during
courtship. Other Ithomiine characteristics include a very slow and
deep wing beat, and a preference for inhabiting the darkest recesses
of the forest understorey.
are basically 2 types of Ithomiine. The first type are the black and
orange-banded "tigers", many of which are mimicked by other species
due to their unpalatability to birds. The second type are the
"glasswings", recognised by their transparent or translucent wings,
prominent veins, and orange wing margins. Many genera contain
examples of both of these types, and in some cases an individual
species may produce adults of both forms according to location.
novices find the Ithomiini very difficult to identify. Using only
the patterns to identify species is very unreliable because there
are so many similar species. Also many species produce a variety of
different colour forms according to locality and season. The best
approach therefore is to use the hindwing venation and other
anatomical features to identify the genus, and to then look at the
wing patterns to short-list the likely species.
The genus Melinaea
contains 11 species, all with similar "tiger" patterning in black
and orange. They can easily be confused with other Ithomiine genera
such as Athyrtis,
Forbestra and Mechanitis but can
be distinguished by examining the wing venation, antennae and
abdomen as well as the colour and pattern. It's also possible to
confuse Melinaea with certain
Heliconius species but the latter have
long straight antennae with prominent clubs, while those of
Melinaea are cream coloured, gradually
tapered, and droop noticeably.
occurs from Panama to Bolivia.
Melinaea menophilus is a primary
rainforest species found throughout the Amazonian region at
altitudes between 0-1200m.
Alto Madre de Dios, Peru ©
I have no data regarding menophilus,
but the lifecycle is likely to be very similar to that of
Melinaea ethra as follows : The egg is
white, and laid singly on the undersurface of a leaf. A female will
lay several eggs on each plant visited.
Melinaea larvae are similar to those of
Lycorea, being white, ringed on each segment with bands of
orange-brown or reddish according to species. The head is striped in
black and white, and behind it is a pair long black horizontal
filaments that can be moved about at will by the larva. The larval
foodplants of Melinaea include
and possibly other Solanaceae. These plants are toxic, so to avoid
being poisoned the caterpillars bite through the leaf veins to
demobilise the plant's defensive compounds before consuming the
tissue. The pupa is suspended vertically from a leaf. It is very
squat in shape, with compressed abdominal segments, and the thorax
is arched back in such a way that the head and wing cases are in a
horizontal plane. It is green in colour.
butterfly is active mainly in the early morning, when it can be found
visiting flowers in forest clearings and along riverbanks. Later in
the day it spends most of it's time motionless, sitting on leaves in
the deep shade of the forest.
other Ithomiines, the butterflies spend long periods at rest on the
foliage of small shrubs in the darkness of their rainforest and
cloudforest habitats. They are extremely nervous, and if disturbed fly
immediately, only to resettle on another nearby leaf. The flight is
very slow, with characteristic deep wing beats. When feeding in the
open they behave very differently - both sexes being very placid and
reluctant to leave their flowers.
sequester pyrrolizidine alkaloids from
Myosotis ( Boraginaceae ),
Neomiranda and Senecio (
Asteraceae ). These chemicals confer toxic qualities to the
butterflies which deter bird attacks. The chemicals are also used in
the production of pheromones. Often the males of several Ithomiine
species will gather together at communal leks, where they release
these pheromones from hair-like androconial scales on the leading edge
of their upperside hindwings. These attract more males, which in turn
release further pheromones. After a few days the lek may include 50 or
more adults comprised of as many as dozen different species. Passing
females are attracted to the leks by the complex fragrances. Their
presence stimulates the males to open their wings and release further
pheromones that entice them into copulation. Females obtain sustenance
from nectar, and also visit bird droppings which provide them with a
source of nitrogen that assists with the development of their eggs.