Insect Inscriptions: Hunting for Human Symbols in Gently Fluttering Wings

By Amato, Ivan | Science News, June 16, 1990 | Go to article overview

Insect Inscriptions: Hunting for Human Symbols in Gently Fluttering Wings


Amato, Ivan, Science News


Insect Inscriptions

With its misty cascades, Iguassu Falls punctuates the already steamy border between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil.

"There, for the first time, I saw butterflies with the number 89 on their wings," recalls nature photographer Kjell B. Sandved. "Some of them even have more than one number."

They're easy to photograph, too, he says. "That's because when you go there, you always sweat. They smell you and love it, and they alight right on your hand."

Before Sandved began his search for fluttering numerals, he had already found a variety of letters on the wings of Lepidoptera -- the diverse taxonomic order that includes the world's 200,000 or so species of butterflies and moths. The alphabet project sprang from a chance discovery made nearly 30 years ago, when Sandved was working as a volunteer at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

"I went up into a dusty attic of the museum," Sandved recounts. There he found boxes and boxes of uncatalogued Lepidoptera. "I opened one of these boxes and saw a beautiful letter F."

That was in 1961. From there, he says, "I started looking around for more letters"--and not just in boxes. Over the next 15 years, Sandved tracked down and photographed thousands of butterflies and moths in a quest that took him from the Peruvian Andes to the rain forests of New Guinea to the highlands of Malaysia. In the mid-1970s, he published his first series of photos featuring colorful pointillist letters emerging in the breathtaking arrangements of dust-speck lepidopteran scales.

Today, Sandved's office in Washington, D.C., is crammed from floor to ceiling with his photos, posters and slides. He has managed to assemble the entire alphabet several times over. He has also photographed wing versions of the digits zero through nine, ampersands and question marks, human-like faces and blinking eyes, Greek letters like [Omega] and [pi], the Scandanivian [Phi] and the Germanic umlaut vowels. He has even amassed a series of animal images from the wings of butterflies and moths, which he keeps in a black portfolio labeled "Noah's Ark."

"I have wings looking like algae, looking like shells and fishes and cacti," he says -- not to mention some remarkably detailed images of entire spiders and beetles, all discernible in the patterns of lepidopteran scales.

Through people tend to perceive Sandved's typographical discoveries in an anthropomorphic context, the wing patterns evolved to convey distinctly nonhuman messages. Sandved and other lepidopterologists, suspect, for instance, that the circles or O's seen on so many moths and butterflies evolved to appear as eyes. Many animals, including fish and birds, sport similar circular motifs. A striking example is the male peacock, which spreads its tail plume to reveal a profusion of vivid eyespots. A potential assailant might think twice before messing with those glaring eyes.

Large, dramatic eyespots on butterflies and moths may likewise discourage hungry birds and other predators. The spots can appear eerily lifelike; Sandved says he has found moths with eye designs that actually seem to blink when a hind wing eclipses a front wing.

On the other hand, small spots on wing edges might serve to divert a predator's attention from more critical tissues such as the insect's head and body, Sandved suggests. In such cases, he speculates, the lepidopteran logic goes as follows: "If my primary wing designs haven't concealed me from you or frightened you away, and you're determined to bite me, then at least bite here, on the edge of my wing, where I will be injured the least." He has photographed a butterfly with spidermimicking designs on the edges of its wings, where the unusual patterns might offer a similar last-ditch line of defense.

Some wing designs spill over to other parts of the anatomy. …

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