HAVANA TIMES —I have many friends who are biologists and have become something of a self-taught biologist thanks to this. Years ago, one of these friends told me an amazing story about an insect found in Cuba.
It is a butterfly which I took a long time to identify as such, though I had seen its eggs and caterpillar form at different stages of development. I had even seen its cocoons. I believe it is a type of syntomeida epilais Walker.
I had always been drawn to the iridescent reds and blacks of the butterfly in its adult form. The caterpillar is orange and hairy and feeds on a highly venomous plant used to separate highway lanes in Cuba. Havana’s Monumental highway is decorated with shrubs of this plant, known as Adelfa, which was originally brought over to Cuba from the Mediterranean. The butterfly pupae develop at the foot of this toxic plant.
My biologist friend told me he did his undergraduate thesis on the forms of communication employed by these butterflies. The insects have an organ made up of vibrating membranes that produce ultrasonic sounds. These organs are used during coupling rituals and also as a defense against predators (they can even reduce a bat’s ability to detect and capture them).
Another defense strategy employed by these harmless little animals is mimesis: their bodies and colors can imitate those of other species of insects that are feared because of their poisonous stingers, which can kill even tarantulas. Another interesting fact about this species of butterfly is that its caterpillars, known as “hairy bears”, imitate the color and texture of the fuzz on the seeds of the plant they feed on.
My friend’s research revealed that the insects that grew on the plants used to separate the lanes of Havana’s Monumental highway were deaf as a result of the acoustic contamination caused by traffic. Despite their handicap, these butterflies still manage to survive.
In places far from streets or highways, these creatures have their hearing organs intact, though they always run the risk of contamination by fumigation campaigns aimed at killing mosquitos. These insecticides kill all sorts of insects, as well as spiders and reptiles.
Nature is full of wonders. I don’t know how this insect that can survive only thanks to this poisonous plant brought from Europe came to be, and how it is so many environmental factors combine to protect it.
It seems the insect was also brought over from the Mediterranean and that it adapted to Cuba’s climate. More than eleven thousand species belonging to this family of insects have been discovered around the world. All are capable of interfering with the eco system used by bats to hone in on their prey.