Last Updated: Feb 27, 2012
Costa Rica’s butterfly species make up approximately 90% of all Central American butterflies, 66% of neo-tropical butterflies and 18% of the world’s total butterfly species.
Butterflies are members of the insect class. They use their antennae for balance and smell, and though they flit through the air almost effortlessly, their four-part wings are very delicate and easily damaged. Their eyes, large compared to their bodies, provide them with only basic sight – images are blurry, and butterflies essentially see only motion, light and color. These three perceptions serve butterflies well for their average 3-week lifespan.
Many butterflies play the important ecological role of pollinator. They feed on flower nectar, helping to cross-pollinate by delivering precious pollen among the colorful blooms. In addition to sweet nectar, butterflies also feast on tree sap, rotting fruit and the dissolved minerals often found in wet sand, dirt and animal dung.
Due to their beauty and profusion, butterflies hold much significance in both ancient and modern cultures. Many societies, including the ancient Greeks, believed that butterflies represented the human soul. Similarly, in China and Japan, butterflies represented the presence of loved ones. Oppositely, some cultures believed butterflies to be foreboding omens or carriers of bad luck.
A butterfly’s main goal in life is to reproduce. After mating, female butterflies lay approximately 100 eggs, the total for their lifetime. Some butterfly species lay their eggs in groups, while others lay their eggs one-by-one on different plant leaves. Only two to five percent of the eggs will mature into healthy adult butterflies; the rest will be eaten by predators, lost to disease, or fall victims to weather conditions or other natural dangers.
The egg stage of a butterfly’s life is its most vulnerable, and most eggs are lost to the parasitic wasp. After a variable incubation period, butterfly eggs will hatch into butterfly larvae, or caterpillars. Caterpillars eat their way though all sorts of vegetable matter over the course of 10-60 days, growing strong and plump before entering the pupa or chrysalis phase. Hanging upside-down from a leaf or branch, the now-mature caterpillar spins the chrysalis, or cocoon, by performing a final molt. When it is fully developed, the cocoon changes color and splits open. Finally, a fully-grown butterfly emerges, the stunning end product of a long and perilous process.
Note: Many of Costa Rica’s caterpillars have a natural defense system that will leave welts or painful bumps on your skin. Look but don’t touch!
Butterflies of Costa Rica:
Many butterflies make their home in Costa Rica, though some are more prevalent than others. Depending on the location, visitors are most likely to see the following butterflies:
Blue Morpho (Morpho peleides limpida): Perhaps the most recognizable of Costa Rica’s huge butterfly population, the blue morpho is identified primarily by its electric blue and black wings, and its lilting, casual flight. It is the most common morpho in Central America, and prefers habitats between sea level and 6,000 feet.
Hecale Longwing (Heliconius hecale zuleika): This butterfly is characterized by wide, slender wings that are black with white spots on the outside and reddish-orange closer to the body. This species is present throughout Costa Rica, and inhabits altitudes between sea level and 5,600 feet.
Owl Butterfly (Caligo eurilochus): This butterfly is found throughout Costa Rica, and is characterized by its unique tan, black and blue wings. It lives between sea level and 5,250 feet, and is occasionally a pest to bananas.
Florida White (Appias drusilla): True to its name, the male of the species is pure, snowy white. The species occurs throughout Costa Rica, focusing on habitats between sea level and 4,000 feet. The Florida white is characterized by an almost bouncy flight, as if pulled along by gusts of wind.
Ruby-spotted Swallowtail (Papilio anchisiades idaeus): This beautiful butterfly is predominately black, with ruby-red markings on its wings. It is the most common and abundant swallowtail in Costa Rica, and is present year-round at altitudes from sea level to 4,600 feet.
Costa Rica is truly a haven for butterflies, and the casual onlooker will find them throughout the country’s many microclimates and habitats. For more educated observation, head to one of the country’s many butterfly gardens, which offer butterfly tours and personal interaction with numerous species.