Butterfly Collecting in Liberia

Butterfly Collecting in Liberia

By Phillip T. Robinson

Catching butterflies in Liberian forests is a bit different than the stereotypical chase with a butterfly net. As the sunlight waxes and wanes through the forest canopy, the butterflies seem to be solar powered, tending to take flight as the sun brightens.

The most common forest collection sites are in canopy breaks created by rivers and streams. There, the butterfly hunter is often most successful when selecting a stationary position and luring the butterfly to a target, rather than running after them among the brushy obstacles of the forest undergrowth.

Nearly any small, colorful object can be a useful attractant, such as brightly colored plastic clothes pins. In order to position the net efficiently on the ground and to avoid entanglement in debris, creating a small “helipad” from river sand is an effective technique if a natural sand bank is not available. A freshly caught specimen may also be used as a decoy.

Now comfortably positioned, with the net balanced on edge, the butterfly hunter awaits their colorful quarry. When the insect lands on or near the target, a quick flip of the wrist flattens the net and traps the glittering papillon. From there, various methods may be used to preserve the collected specimen for later examination. In order to minimize the loss of scales and avoid damage to delicate wing parts, a common method used was to infuse the thorax of the insect with a tiny amount of alcohol preservative. Actually, vodka will suffice. The collected specimen is then placed in envelopes or cardboard mini-boxes to keep them from damage. The next challenge is to move them to a better location where humidity, mold and other insects do not interfere with their preservation for future studies.

Butterflies are also attracted to various odors and residue found along waterway shorelines, such as stagnant water, organic debris and even animal droppings and urine. It is common to see small assemblages of these creatures seemingly magnetized to such spots along the sandy riverbanks of dry season rivers.

The most significant paper on these insects in Liberia is Butterflies of Liberia, which was published in 1965 in the Memoirs of the American Entomological Society (Number 19). It details the collecting efforts of Richard M. Fox, Arthur W. Lindsey, Jr., Harry K. Clench and Lee D. Miller. Fox spent five years in Liberia, where much of his spare time was devoted to these collections. The preparation of that report was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. This publication details Climate, Liberian Biotopes, Biogeography, Collections of Liberian Butterflies, Records of Liberian Butterflies, Collecting Stations, Observations on the Butterfly Fauna, Seasonal Variation, Seasonal Flight Cycle, Ecological Distribution, Endemicity and Classification.

One of the earliest known lists of identified Liberian butterflies was compiled from the 1880s by Johann Büttikofer, the author of Reisebilder aus Liberia (1890) [Travel Sketches from Liberia, 2013].

The most comprehensive and recent publication on butterflies in this sub-region of Africa is The Butterflies of West Africa by Torben B. Larsen (Apollo Books, 2004). One volume contains the text and the other contains color illustrations. Larsen also authored The Hazards of Butterfly Collecting (Cravitz, 2004).

The Liberian postal service has used butterfly images on a number of stamps over the years. One of the coffee mugs to the right depicts a series of these stamps at the website of the Society for the Conservation of Nature in Liberia in their online store at: www.scnlib.net , while the other is the color plate from Butterflies of Liberia (1965).

Posted in West African Fauna.

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