How Do Butterflies Do It

Having butterflies in your stomach could mean that you’re falling in love, or that you’re attracted to someone.  One of the easiest ways for butterflies to find a mate is by being as colorful as possible and this technique comes natural for them.  Species that fly in the day can afford to rely heavily on colors, and their colored wings are a signal to other butterflies.  This color coordination allows insects to recognize their own species in a complicated habitat.  Colors also distinguish between males and females which is vital when you are looking for a partner.  There is clear evidence for color playing a role in sexual attraction among butterflies, as most males and females have distinctly different appearances.  Obviously, to mate successfully, individuals must be able to determine whether other butterfly belongs to their own or is of the opposite sex.  Once this part is worked out, the rest can be thought of as fine-tuning.

Male butterflies find females by sight, and use chemicals called pheromones at close range.  Both males and females give off scent to communicate with each other, releasing specific pheromones to attract the right type of mate.  During the first stages of finding a partner, males optimistically chase after almost any small, moving object.  This includes leaves, bees, and butterflies of any species of either sex.  When they get closer, they can start working out if they’ve found the right match, by judging colors, pheromones and behavior.  Some female hormones are so powerful that a male butterfly can sense them 10 miles away.

Butterflies mate through sexual reproduction, and mating begins when the male butterfly detects a female butterfly  releasing pheromones at close range.  Once a pair of potential lovers has found each other, the courtship can start.  In many species, the female requires the male to perform a playful dance which is sort of like a short courtship in flight, before she will allow him near enough for fertilization.  The male will delicately fly around her, whirring his wings in the hope that more pheromones waft in her direction.  If she is impressed enough to accept, she will change her posture, letting the abdomen protrude from between her wings.  If the female accepts the male, the male attaches to the female’s abdomen, injecting a sperm packet into her stomach that she stores until she decides to lay eggs.  The male will grasp the female’s abdomen with a pincerlike organ called a clasper, and then insert his aedeagus (analog of a penis) into the female’s copulatory opening reproductive tract to gradually pass his sperm (or spermatophore) to her.   They may remain coupled for an hour or more, and sometimes they will be coupled together overnight.

Males are frequently rejected by picky partners, so they must remain determined if their advances are refused.  Only the luckiest butterflies are successful on the first attempt.  In some species, females prefer to wait several days after mating before looking for another partner.  The odds may be stacked against butterflies, as successful courtship relies on finding the right balance between sight, sound, smell, luck and mood.  Many male butterflies will secrete long-lasting mating plugs to prevent their mates from copulating with other males, thus ensuring their sperm will fertilize all future eggs laid and this seals their mate’s genitalia, so it is sort of like deploying a chastity belt.  The female butterfly reproductive system has separate openings for both mating and birthing offspring, so this plug can remain in effectively prohibiting females from having other mates and still allow them to have offspring.

The female butterflies understand that they benefit from having multiple mating partners, because having more mates means that they will have an increased chance of receiving higher-quality sperm and this will boost the genetic diversity of their offspring.  Thus, females have developed various kinds of countermeasures to resist these mating plugs.  Some females will grow a hardened, smooth plate around their exposed genitalia, which would make it more challenging for the male to attach the plug.  In others, they tuck their genitalia inside of a large cave-like structure to make it more difficult for a male to insert this plug completely.  Females have evolved these adaptations of genitalia, which forces the males to have to allocate a lot of resources to plug them. or else they’re just going to have to give up.  The adult male butterfly dies six to eight weeks after all of the sperm has been depleted from their body.  Thankfully, for most males, little else beyond mating matters over their short lifetimes.

Written for Eugi’s Weekly Prompt – Playful.

10 thoughts on “How Do Butterflies Do It

  1. Wow, life’s not easy for the males. Your post is very informative and beautifully written. Thank you for the education on butterflies and thank you for joining in.

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