Welcome to the Jungle: Pursuing the Ancient and Modern Butterflies of Tikal
It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing in the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.
--Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859
Frankly, I never thought of letters as a career. Writing has always been for me a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime -- but I never expected it to be a source of income. On the other hand, I have often dreamt of a long and exciting career as an obscure curator of lepidoptera in a great museum.
-- Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions
The jungles surrounding the great Maya archaeological site of Tikal are not only filled with the remnants of ancient civilizations, but also teem with life, much of it existing in much the same way as it did tens of thousands of years ago.
|Author in the forests of Tikal|
|Morpho peliedes montezuma. A common butterfly in the bajo forests of Tikal from April to May.|
|Welcome to the Jungle. The author on one of his many collecting trips.|
- Primary upland forest. These are found on well-drained limestone soils and cover about half of the National Park.
- Primary Bajo forest. These are lowland forests that in the rainy season are inundated with water and then become arid in the dry season resulting in extremes in water content. This produces very different vegetation from the more stable upland forests.
- Disturbed forest. Normally small human settlements and selective logging.
- Fallow fields and second growth. Common just outside the National Park boundaries caused by slash and burn agriculture.
- Edge habitats.
|Maudslay's Photo of Stele H at Copan|
|Frederick DuGane Godman|
"in considering the distribution of organic beings over the face of the globe, the first great fact that strikes us is, that neither the similarity nor the dissimilarity of the inhabitants of various regions can be accounted for by their climatal [sic] and other physical conditions."
The plates and volumes relating to the butterfly fauna found in the Biologia are particularly interesting to anyone studying the lepidoptera of the region today. The species attributions were mostly completed by Godman, whose own butterfly collection numbered more than 107,000 specimens. To work on the volumes both Godman and Slavin traveled to Guatemala, Honduras and Belize, and employed groups of both professional and amateur collectors. In the introduction to the entire series Godman writes of his collecting experiences and the impression the butterfly fauna made on him,
"In August 1861, I joined Salvin on his third expedition to Guatemala, and, after spending three weeks in Jamaica, en route, we landed at Belize; thence taking our passage in a coasting schooner we arrived at Yzabal on the Golgo Dolce. Here we remained a few days, making preparations for our journey [...] This place will, however, always be associated in my mind with my first sight of a living example of one of the most striking and gorgeous of all butterflied, Morpho peleides. I was sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree in the forest, when it came floating past me, but I was so overcome with astonishment and delight at this wonderful vision that, although I had butterfly net in hand, I was utterly unable to rise in pursuit until it was too late to capture it."
In the Biologia three species of Morpho butterflies are mentioned and pictured, but the plate gives little impression of the difficult sorting out of the many subspecies of this genus that have been identified by modern collectors and entomologists.
|Morpho Plate from the Biologia Centrali-Americana|
|Type specimens from the Biologia. From the top Morpho deidamia granadensis, Morpho theseus justitae, and Mopho helenor octavia|
For Godman, the helenor group must have been extremely difficult to identify, and although he must have noticed a wide variety of variations of this butterfly in the field, he makes no attempt to sort out the subspecies, of which the Morpho peleides that he was so taken with in his introduction is one. Today the complexity of the Morpho genus in Central America is an ongoing area of research with the following subspecies recognized so far:
- M. h. achillaena (Hübner, )
- M. h. achillides C. & R. Felder, 1867
- M. h. anakreon Fruhstorfer, 1910
- M. h. charapensis Le Moult & Réal, 1962
- M. h. coelestis Butler, 1866
- M. h. cortone Fruhstorfer, 1913
- M. h. corydon Guenée, 1859
- M. h. guerrerensis Le Moult & Réal, 1962
- M. h. helenor (Cramer, 1776)
- M. h. insularis Fruhstorfer, 1912
- M. h. leontius C. & R. Felder, 1867
- M. h. macrophthalmus Fruhstorfer, 1913
- M. h. maculata Röber, 1903
- M. h. marajoensis Le Moult & Réal, 1962
- M. h. marinita Butler, 1872
- M. h. montezuma Guenée, 1859
- M. h. narcissus Staudinger, 1887
- M. h. octavia Bates, 1864
- M. h. papirius Hopffer, 1874
- M. h. peleides Kollar, 1850 now in Morpho peleides
- M. h. peleus Röber, 1903
- M. h. pindarus Fruhstorfer, 1910
- M. h. popilius Hopffer, 1874
- M. h. rugitaeniatus Fruhstorfer, 1907
- M. h. telamon Röber, 1903
- M. h. theodorus Fruhstorfer, 1907
- M. h. tucupita Le Moult, 1925
- M. h. ululina Le Moult & Réal, 1962
- M. h. violaceus Fruhstorfer, 1912
- M. h. zonaras Fruhstorfer, 1912
With all the amazing butterfly life existing in the Maya region it is strange that we have few identifiable references to these particular kinds of insects in Maya iconography and painting. Many of the precise representations that we do have from native peoples of the region come from the Aztecs. One identifiable example is found in the sixteenth century Kingsborough Codex that details the history of Tepetlaoztoc (translated Cave-place).
|Page from the Kingsborough Codex|
According to Karl Taube, writing in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, butterflies, as creatures associated with daylight, flowers and warmth, were commonly identified with gods of fertility and abundance in Postclassic Central Mexico. The fertility goddess, Xochiquetzal, or "flower quetzal, often, according to Traube, wears a butterfly nose piece as well as butterflies in her headdress.
In the Kingsborough Codex, shown above, we see a feather mosaic shield containing Xochiquetzal portrayed as an upward flying butterfly. Because of the two tails shown in the image the butterfly can be readily identified as a drawing of Papilio multicaudatus, one of the largest common butterflies found in the Valley of Mexico.
|Papilio multicaudatus in the wild|
Today, research on the butterflies of Central America and the region surrounding Tikal and other ancient sites continues, with new species being found, and the genetic variations amongst known varieties being worked out with DNA sequencing. But even as the biogeography of these beautiful and striking creatures is more and more understood, and as their distribution is being mapped by collectors and cartographers like myself, there is still little that can substitute for the shear joy and astonishment, much like that experienced by Godman in the nineteenth century, of seeing these insects "on the wing." An experience that unfortunately in today's rapidly developing world, is getting less and less possible.
For a modern survey of the butterflies of Tikal and surrounding region see George Austin et. al., "Annotated Checklist of the Butterflies of the Tikal National Park Area of Guatemala," Tropical Lepidotera 7 (1996) 21-37. A total of 535 species are currently known to exist in the park.