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Tropical leafwing butterflies are abundant in Belize. They vary extremely in their wing and body coloration. Males leafwing's vary like the color of leaves during the dry season, from bright red to pale yellow. Females leafwing's feature a conspicuous tan area on their forewings, which resembles a dried brown skeleton of a leaf, and have a more pointed abdomen.
As members of the of the brush-footed butterfly family (Nymphalidae), tropical leafwing butterflies exhibit a highly modified front pair of legs that are extremely hairy and are not used for walking.
The behavior of a tropical leafwing butterfly depends upon its environment and situation. Generally, the adults are strong fliers with powerful wings. However, male butterflies prefer to sit and wait on perches, rather than roam, when looking for suitable mates in order to conserve energy. If disturbed, the tropical leafwings do not hesitate to use their flying power and move on. The butterflies quickly soar into the forest canopy and then fold up their wings in order to blend in with their surroundings, as seen in the picture above.
Wild coffee is a favorite food plant of tropical leafwing caterpillars (as the leaves contain phyto-chemicals), which may provide predator defense to the species through chemical sequestering. The larvae are gray-green with many pale, oddly shaped points, the thickest of which is a green-highlighted hump at the rear of the thorax. Mature larvae feature a pair of widely spaced, blunt, peg-like horns on their heads that are splattered with green granules. For added defense, the larvae form chains at the ends of leaves by binding particles of their droppings together with spun silk. The result is a jumble of debris that provides the caterpillars with some protection from predaceous jungle ants.
The tropical leafwing butterfly species are popular in butterfly collections prepared for science courses and museums because they illustrate camouflage very well. Although they are considered relatively common in the wild, the status of tropical leafwing butterflies are at risk in the rain forest, due to deforestation. Here in Belize, much of our rain forest is protected, so the leafwing butterfly will be around for a very long time.
Next time you are walking through the rain forest in Belize (look closely), and see if you can see a leafwing butterfly.