Yesterday, with a burning need to stop listening to the news, I headed down to the American Museum of Natural History to visit the Butterfly Conservatory, which will be closing this coming Monday. The exhibit has a few display panels describing the evolution and biology of butterflies- of the almost 250,000 Lepidopteran species, 7% are considered butterflies, the other 93% are moths. The Lepidoptera have colorful scales on their wings and staw-like proboscises (those which have mouthparts in their adult forms- some, like the giant Atlas moths, imperial moths, and luna moths lack mouthparts, and do not feed- existing only to mate, and to enthrall primates).
The closest relatives to the Lepidoptera are the Trichoptera, the caddisflies, which are characterized by aquatic larvae which build protective 'cases', typically bound together with silk. The Lepidoptera, being mainly nectar-feeders, co-evolved with the flowering plants- the exhibit had an image of a fossil Prodryas persophone dating back to the Eocene epoch.
The life cycles of butterflies should be well known to any observers of nature- the transitions from egg to larva (caterpillar) to pupa (encased in a chrysalis or coccoon) to adult (imago) are well-documented, as any wag will tell you.
Of course, the centerpiece of the exhibit is a chamber kept at a humid 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.67 Celsius) and chock full of Lepidopterans, with some particularly gorgeous Morpho butterflies seeming to dominate.
The real show stealers, as Thunder would be able to tell you, were the Atlas moths which, while somewhat sombre in hue, have a wingspan wider than that of a typical sparrow:
It was fun to see how different people react to the insects- one little girl was displaying some trepidation, while another loquacious girl not only reveled in the butterflies, but talked about them with any adult within earshot. As for myself, I love the things- I had one land on my hand, and was torn between reaching for my camera and not moving in order to prolong the contact. I also had the feeling of tiny legs crawling across the back of my neck, but all was good in the world because it was a butterfly and not some bitey or stingy thing.
After about a half-hour in the butterfly chamber, I realized that I was sweaty and needed a nice, cold drink. I exited out the 'airlock' style double doors, after a cursory inspection for stowaways, and proceeded to the less colorful, but no less magical, precincts of the museum.