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The Amazing Proboscis

November 27, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

The colder weather has set in. I’ve been indoors organizing photographs, trying to identify moths I've seen this season, and having fun enlarging insect photos on my computer screen. I love looking at the butterflies close-up. Last year was the first time I clearly saw, with my unaided eye, the proboscis of a butterfly. I was astounded!  I couldn’t quite believe it.  Equally exciting, was to capture it on camera. I now know how easy that is to do in the field, but even so, the sight of a lepidopteran's proboscis is always a happy gift, a reassuring pleasure. 

The proboscis is a complicated structure.  When a butterfly first emerges from its chrysalis, the proboscis is in two parts. Along with drying its wings so it can fly, a butterfly must “zip up” the proboscis, fusing the two parts together to form its straw-like structure so it can drink.  Essential for an animal that lives on liquids. Look closely in the center of this Fiery Skipper's proboscis -- you can see a faint line where the two parts were fused together. 
I've read that when it's not feeding, the butterfly or moth curls the proboscis up into a tight coil and hides it beneath its chin.  I can't figure out how they manage to hide it, though.  Here's a photograph of a monarch's proboscis partially coiled. 

How does the proboscis work?  It's described as being similar to sucking through a straw, but you and I both know that butterflies don't have lungs. What do they use then to put the sucking action into motion?  I haven't found a satisfying answer. This source (interesting but very scientific reading http://rsif.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2011/08/09/rsif.2011.0392.full) describes the presence of some kind of "muscular sucking pump in the head".  If you read even the first page of this article you'll learn more about what lepidopterans feed on and how much more scientists have yet to discover about their amazing proboscis.

Spangled FritilarySpangled FritilaryThis butterfly was missing a lot of its lower wings, but I'm sure it's the Great Spangled
Waltham, MA

Great Spangled Fritillary

Clouded Sulphur

 


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