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Monday, March 14, 2005

Gossamer wings

Maria Eleanor Elape Valeros
March 29, 2001

Man’s fondness of butterflies, the most glamorous creatures of the insect-dom, is age old. These creatures’ fragile wings and radiant colors have time and again enthralled poets, writers, and artists of many cultures. Such observation is enriched by Susanne Reichenberg’s article on fragile lepidopteran beauties found in Malaysia.

Malaysia Airlines, one of the top global carriers, is very much like its butterflies as it spreads wings over the world within a span of half a century. It has been observed that the nation’s flag carrier, one of the youngest fleet in southeast Asia, has chalked up an impressive track record from utilizing a single airplane to becoming one of the largest passenger airlines. With the dawning of the new millennium, Malaysia Airlines basks in the glory of being a celebrated world-class airline.

Today, Malaysia Airlines has a fleet of over 100 aircraft with a network of more than 100 destinations across 6 continents. With the growth of the airline’s fleet and network, its gossamer wings spread over Cebu on October 31, 1993 and flies exit Cebu to Kuala Lumpur twice weekly every Thursday and Sunday.

Lepis + pteron

Now let’s go back to Malaysia’s lepidopteran beauties scattered all over its stupendous rainforests. Butterflies belong to the Lepidopterae family of the super big, big world of insects (animals with anatomical features divided into three main regions: head, thorax, and abdomen). Scientifically, the word lepidoptera is derived from the Greek words lepis (scale) and pteron (wing). The Lepidopterae family is then divided into butterflies and moths. A general rule to distinguish the former from the latter is to note that butterflies usually fly during the day, whereas moths are nocturnal. Another easy identification guide is in the way they rest. Generally, moths rest with their wings opened in a horizontal position, while butterflies fold both wings together in a closed, upright position.

‘Twas fascination, err…admiration

What is behind this fascination for butterflies, you might as well ask? Susanne Reichenberg, an Australia-based travel writer, explains that in northern Europe, butterflies appear in spring proclaiming the advent of warmth and sun after a harsh winter, joyfully welcomed as a symbol of new life.

“Humanity admires the ultimate freedom these insects enjoy, roaming in a Garden of Eden between blossoms and lush foliage,” says Reichenberg.

Indeed it is a joyous sight to behold when scores of butterflies, displaying gossamer wings in their graceful flights from bloom to bloom, go feeding on nectar – the mythical drink of the gods; hovering and flitting in search of plant foods particularly suited to each specie; and fluttering and seeking for a good laying space.

Malaysia’s fragile beauties

Malaysia’s hundred-million-year-old rainforests serve as home to more than a thousand species of butterflies, having an already impressive number to which more discoveries are regularly added.

Biologists have identified many families and subfamilies of butterflies. Some of the most striking and spectacular species belong to the Papilionidae family or Swallowtails. They are characterized through their long pointed forewings and swallow-like tails from their hind wings.

Butterflies are said to be most active during the early morning and late afternoon. All forms of moisture, like puddles on the roadside, riverbanks, and wet leaves attract them. Many butterflies are also drawn to animal matter, observes Reichenberg, most especially urine which is why animal’s waterholes are good spots for butterfly watching.

The acclaimed naturalist Arthur Russell Wallace, and Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, are two of the most notable explorers of the Malaysian butterfly world. It was Wallace who discovered one of the most beautiful examples when he was exploring the jungles of Borneo back in 1855, this according to accounts of the investigative report made by Reichenberg.

Wallace found, in his net, a velvety black and brilliant green-colored butterfly with long, pointed wings and bright red neck. He named it in honor of the first British ruler of Sarawak at that time, Rajah James Brooke. The Rajah Brooke Birdwing has a truly notable wingspan of up to 18 centimeters and is today, one of the national symbols of Malaysia.

Visitors to Malaysia will have many opportunities to observe these beautiful insects, either in one of the butterfly farms which can be found all over the country. They will not only be amazed by Malaysia Airlines’ gossamer wings, they will get the opportunity too to view big, small, plain, spotted, and multihued butterflies in Kuala Lumpur and Penang butterfly parks which are highly recommended. But the thrill does not end there. For a bit more strenuous but even more rewarding activity, one can go on a trek through Malaysia’s hundred-million-year-old rainforests where species abound.


“Perhaps one of the most amazing things about a butterfly is its life cycle,” Reichenberg points out.

Every nature lover is astonished at the complete transformation, or metamorphosis, of butterflies from unsightly caterpillars to fragile yet stunning beauties. In its final form as an adult butterfly, it can only live for two to three weeks, but has had to go through three different lengthy stages to achieve its full beauty.

It starts with the female butterfly laying tiny rotund eggs on a food plant as every specie has its own particular plant. Within several days, these eggs hatch into caterpillars, equipped with powerful jaws to feed on verdant leaves. Caterpillars grow at a rapid rate and will cast its skin several times before it reaches the stage when it turns itself into a pupa.

The metamorphosis of this greedy worm-like creature from an apparently dormant-cocooned stage into a magnificent butterfly after weeks or months is one of nature’s greatest moments. When the adult butterfly emerges, its wings are crumpled and wet. Within an hour, the wings will have dried, and after several flaps, the butterfly takes off to feed, frolic, and mate.

The crusade to propagate and preserve butterfly species stems from so many good reasons. First, butterflies are agents of pollination that only means that they help maintain ecological balance by replenishing vegetation lost to factors as overconsumption and slash-and-burn farming.

Second, they aren’t carriers of any forms of diseases unlike other insects dreaded for being agents of malaria and cholera outbreaks. On top of it all, they are so pleasing and soothing to the eyes. Their presence makes one a poet in an instant, serves as inspiration to aspiring writers and canvas masters, and a motivating factor to the accomplishment of a lyricist’s or a musician’s works.

The insect-dom, particularly butterflies, teach man lessons on how to become more sensitive to the needs of his co-workers in this world teeming with biodiversity.(/30)