Magazine article Science News

Butterflies in Their Stomachs

Magazine article Science News

Butterflies in Their Stomachs

Article excerpt

Among butterflies, the madrone species (Eucheira socialis) is a true oddball. For starters, this rare, mostly black insect inhabits just five species of madrone trees in the pine-oak forests of the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Trans-Neo-volcanic Moutains of Mexico. Second, its larvae forage together in a quasisocial manner atypical of butterflies. And third, the silk cocoons of larvae and pupae that hang on madrone trees in springtime -- as many of 20 bags per tree -- consist of unusually tought, double-stranded silk threads.

But those features aren't the only reasons why ethnobotanist Robert A. Bye has returned year after year since the mid-1970s to a forested site in northwest Mexico to study the madrone butterfly.

His research took wing in a forest just east of the town of Creel, Mexico, a popular madrone haunt. Bye discovered that the native Indians there have a long-standing tradition of eating the fatty, protein-rich madrone pupae, which they call iwiki. Roasting hundreds of the pear-shaped butterflies-to-be over an open fire and sometimes mixing the crisped pupae with corn gruel, some of the Tarahumara Indians appear to use the cooked materials as a nutritional supplement in late spring -- traditionally a time of food shortage between the end of the dry season and the beginning of the main agricultural cycle, Bye says.

Native people in Mexico occasionally eat some 100 types of insects, but snacking on madrone pupae now appears limited to elders in the Tarahumara tribe, observers Bye, director of the botanical gardens at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. …

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