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Mary Harris, Reiman Gardens, (515) 294-2567,
Jean McGuire, Continuing Education and Communication Services, (515) 294-7033,

Asian Mormon Butterflies

Mary Harris
Christina Reiman Butterfly Wing Curator

The Christina Reiman Butterfly Wing regularly exhibits several species of large Asian swallowtail butterflies commonly known as Mormons. Three of these species share some particularly interesting life history traits as well as a common name.

The Scarlet Mormon (Papilio rumanzovia), Great Mormon (Papilio memnon) and Common Mormon (Papilio polytes) are all beautifully colored in black and white, often with red markings. The high contrast patterns along with their relatively large size cause members of these species to standout to visitors of the butterfly exhibit. Furthermore, Butterfly Wing visitors will think they are seeing more species than they actually are, because each of the Mormons is sexually dimorphic (males and females differ) as well as polymorphic (more than one wing pattern). These polymorphisms were first described nearly a century and a half ago.

In 1864, Alfred Russel Wallace wrote "a large and handsome Malayan butterfly, Papilio memnon, is a good case of dimorphism. The male is nearly uniform bluish black, with rounded hind wings, and never varies. One portion of the females resemble the males in shape, but are coloured brown or ashy, and with more or less white markings on the hind wings. Another set of females are found, however, which differ remarkably in the shape of the wings . . . and they have also white lines radiating from the base of the wing. Intermediates in form or colour between these two kinds of females never occur." P. memnon females have since been determined to occur in four different morphs. Similarly, female P. polytes have several distinct female morphs as do P. rumanzovia females while the male of each species does not vary.

A colleague of Wallace's, Henry Walter Bates, determined that the multi-morph females are mimicking other butterflies. In the areas where the Mormons occur, there are other species of butterflies that look like one or another morph of the Mormon females. These other species feed on toxic plants such as Aristolocia, which renders them unpalatable to predators. The Mormon females, which are palatable, mimic the unpalatable model thus gaining protection from predators that mistake them for the other bad tasting species. This type of mimicry has become known as Batesian mimicry in honor of Bates who first described it in 1862.

Common names of butterfly species are usually descriptive and the Mormon butterflies are aptly named. Harish Gaonkar, of the Natural History Museum in London, recently wrote that "the origins of giving common English names to organisms, particularly butterflies for tropical species started in India around the mid 19th century . . . The naming of Mormons evolved slowly. I think the first to get such a name was the Common Mormon (Papilio polytes), because it had three different females, a fact that could only have been observed in the field, and this they did in India. The name obviously reflected the . . . Mormon sect in America, which as we know, practiced polygamy."

The Scarlet Mormon is the largest of these three species with wings from one tip to the other measuring 5.5 inches. The males are a deep velvety black with areas of scarlet between the black wing veins near the body in both the fore- and hindwings. The hindwings also have scarlet circles with black centers near the margins. The females also display areas of scarlet near the body and have scarlet circles with black centers near the margins of the hindwings. However, the number of these circles is less than that in the male and some are reduced to half circles. One female morph has grayish scales between black veins in the forewings accompanied by a bold patch of white in the hindwings. Another female morph (P. r. semperinus) has no white area in the hind wing, but displays a continuous pale red patch from the lower margin of the hindwing to the leading edge of the forewing.

During a visit to the Butterfly Wing, Dorothia Rohner was smitten by a pair of Scarlet Mormons visiting the deep red flowers of a Bleeding Heart. Rohner, a professional artist and ISU alumna, subsequently created an original watercolor of these striking butterflies on the bleeding heart. From this watercolor she produced a limited edition (250 numbered) print as well as a poster, both of which are available in the Reiman Gardens Gift Shop with the proceeds supporting the Gardens. This watercolor is a lovely way to capture the memory of your own visit to the Butterfly Wing.


Editors: A color photo, suitable for publication, is available at right. Click on the thumbnail photo to go to the fullsized photo. The picture's fullsize photo is 328K.

Caption: Posters and limited edition prints of this watercolor featuring Scarlet Mormon butterflies are available the Reiman Gardens Gift Shop. A visit to the Christina Reiman Butterfly Wing at the Gardens inspired the Dorothia Rohner to create this painting.

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