Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

On the Colour and Colour-patterns of
Moths and Butterflies (S535: 1897)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A note printed in the 29 April 1897 issue of the journal Nature, responding to a paper by Alfred Goldsborough Mayer published in the Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with:

    [[p. 618]] A paper by Mr. Alfred Goldsborough Mayer, on "The Colour and Colour-Patterns of Moths and Butterflies" (Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History, vol. xxvii. No. 14, pp. 243-330, March 1897), is a rather elaborate discussion of a subject which has lately attracted much attention; but though Mr. Mayer has made some interesting experiments and observations, his results are neither so novel nor so important as he claims them to be. One of the most interesting parts of the paper is the account of the development of wing-colours during the pupal state, a summary being given of previous researches, supplemented by a series of new observations on common species of American moths and butterflies. The result arrived at is, that the wings are at first transparent, then white, then drab or dusky yellow, while all the purer and brighter colours arise later on. This is what might be expected from the general distribution of colour in lepidopterous insects, and has been indicated by Dr. Dixie and other writers as probable.

    Some ingenious experiments were made for the purpose of ascertaining whether the wing-scales were of any use in giving a greater hold on the air. The wings, with and without scales, were attached to a delicate pendulum, but no measurable difference in air-friction was found. Neither do the scales perceptibly strengthen the wings, hence it was concluded that they have been developed solely as colour-producing organs of use to the various species.

    A considerable space is devoted to the development of the colour-patterns of the Danaoid and Arcræoid Heliconidæ and the phenomena of mimicry. These are illustrated by four coloured plates intended to show the markings of a large number of species. These plates do not represent the insects themselves, but are "projected by Keeler's method" on rectangles of uniform size, which are supposed to afford more accurate means of comparison. This will seem to most naturalists to be a great mistake. It not only renders the patterns of the most familiar species almost unrecognisable, but it introduces many possibilities of error in the process of projection which even a comparison with the species represented may not enable us to detect. In the case of mimicking species it has the further disadvantage of obscuring differences of outline, and by irregular distortion giving undue prominence to what may be very slight differences in the actual species. In many mimicking species there is a wonderful similarity of [[p. 619]] general effect combined with considerable differences of detail, and by the process of "projection" these differences of detail may be exaggerated while the general similarity is obscured.

    While accepting Fritz Müller's explanation of the mimicry of protected species by each other, and as also affording the only intelligible reason for there only being two types of colour-pattern in the whole 400 species of the Danaoid Heliconidæ, he says that "unfortunately no direct experiments have been made on the feeding habits of young South American birds." But in view of the careful experiments of Prof. Lloyd Morgan on a variety of young birds this is hardly necessary, as it is proved that they have in no case any instinctive knowledge of what is edible or distasteful, while they acquire the knowledge by experience with extreme rapidity. Like many other writers on the subject who have recently criticised and rejected the theory of warning colours as indicating inedibility, Mr. Mayer does not distinguish between the habitual and the only occasional enemies of protected insects. Thus he refers to the experiments of Beddard, showing that toads will eat any insects whatever; but it is quite certain that toads are not very dangerous enemies to either butterflies or their larvæ, nor probably are marmosets, which are also general feeders. There is quite sufficient evidence to show that insects with warning colours are rejected by most insectivorous birds and lizards, which are certainly the most general and most dangerous devourers of insects both in the larva and winged state, and these facts, taken in conjunction with the experiments of Prof. Lloyd Morgan, afford a firm foundation for the whole theory of warning colours and mimicry.

A. R. W.

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