For a life that rarely goes beyond a couple of weeks, the amount of cloak and dagger moves was overwhelming. I, for one, stood agape, eyes wide with incredulity and misted over with marvel. Lepidopterist extraordinaire Peter Smetacek held forth on the survival tactics of butterflies. Camouflage—trying to look like leaves and twigs—I had learnt in school. Embellishing his florid detailing—Peter was more of a storyteller than a dry professor—were the hundreds of specimens pinned to full-span glory inside glass cases lining the walls of the Butterfly Research Centre—a legacy, museum, and residence—at Bhimtal in Uttarakhand.
Butterflies for me were at best a passing interest. But after spending a few hours with Peter, I emerged from the centre, situated in the vicinity of Bhimtal lake, certain that butterflies will henceforth be more than, as Wordsworth put it, ‘Historians of my infancy’.
“The mimicry is a form of survival where a harmless species—invariably tastier too—has evolved to mirror the warning traits of a harmful one aimed at warding off predators,” says Peter. There are many forms of mimicry of which the most intriguing is aposematic colouration.
“Just like humans, birds have different colour associations. While blue and green are considered safe, orange, red and yellow are signs of danger,” he says. To show us an example, Peter shone his LED torch on the photograph of swallowtail butterfly (Chilasa clytia) known as the ‘common mime’ found in abundance in the hilly regions during monsoon.
“This one mimics the common crow,” he says. Then there is ‘snake mimicry’, which is good enough to startle a human on a groggy morning. Very tenderly Peter took out a species of moth from a case and held it out for us to see. The crest of the forewing was lobed and bore markings resembling the mouth and eyes of a snake. Give it some flutter, forget birds, it was good enough to bring out the Bolt in most of us.
The Queen of Spain fritillary has what looks like diamonds attached to its wings while all it wants is to look like dew drops. And there is the Dusky Diadem, which could inspire a throne design. “They are a common sight in areas of Uttarakhand,” says the founder of the museum—having a collection of preserved moths and butterflies— who offers educational courses also.