Our summer months here at Sanbona Wildlife Reserve in the beautiful Karoo, are filled with the slow flight of the African Monarch butterfly.
These beautiful orange, black and white medium sized butterflies start their life as brightly coloured caterpillars, which mostly feed on toxic plants such as milkweeds. The caterpillars absorb the toxic compounds from their food plants, making them distasteful to predators. Bright colour contrasts in larva and adult insects, such as black, yellow, red, orange, and white, are used to warn predators that the insect is toxic, distasteful or dangerous, thus protecting the species. This type of colouration is known as Aposematic colouration.
Once the larvae has pupated into a beautiful brightly coloured adult butterfly they absorb bitter, poisonous alkaloids from certain plants, like some Senecio and Heliotropespecies. The male Monarchs suck the alkaloids and create useful chemicals such as pheromones to attract female Monarchs, and bitter compounds that are distasteful to predators. The males then transfers some of these chemicals to the females when they mate, allowing them to create their own protective chemicals.
Some butterfly species will mimic toxic butterflies such as the African Monarch to trick predators into thinking they are also toxic; this is known as Batesian Mimicry. An example of this is the female Common Diadem mimicking the African monarch. Often the easiest way to tell the mimic from the real butterfly is in its flight pattern. Monarchs have a slow, lazy flight pattern, where as the mimic will have a faster, more nervous flight pattern.
The next time you see these flying jewels you can appreciate their survival strategies and elegance, the reason behind their flaunting flight. So when you are with us on your Big 5 safari, also look for the smaller insects as they too play an important role in the eco-system and your wilderness experience.