"Sometimes the more you know—the more you understand—the more you are truly amazed that it happens at all," Paulette Haywood Ogard explained about the wonder of butterflies.
Even after years of study, scientists cannot explain or understand the way the caterpillar’s chrysalis rearranges its DNA to emerge as a butterfly.
"It’s just amazing that it happens," Paulette stated.
As author of the book, Butterflies of Alabama: Glimpses into Their Lives, Paulette and the book’s photographer, Sara Bright, both Birmingham residents, have devoted more than 15 years of their lives to chronicling the 84 known species of "true" butterflies (Papilionoidea) calling Alabama home.
The 512 page book, with 418 color illustrations and 86 maps, has already become a "bible" for natural lovers throughout the Southeast.
While her professional trade was as a social worker, Paulette explained her love of nature interwove itself into her life.
"I guess you can describe my life by saying I raised two boys and chased butterflies," she laughed.
Sara, a professional photographer whose work has been featured in magazines like Canoe, Southern Living, Outdoor Life and more, explained their love of all-things-butterfly as well: "When photographing the butterfly’s relationship with native plants first peaked my curiosity 15 years ago, I wouldn’t have predicted it would change my life. But while research is enjoyable, the field trips feed my soul.
"I find the predation escape adaptations of each stage of a butterfly’s lifecycle endlessly fascinating. Trying to understand and capture these moments and convey them to others is rewarding, but my favorite part of the project is capturing a successful photograph of the gorgeous winged insect!
"To do this, I must be part portrait photographer—trying to catch its beauty in just the right light; part sport photographer—trying to stop the action at an interesting moment; part natural historian—trying to impart as much information as possible; and part photojournalist—attempting to tell the story of each species’ life."
Paulette and Sara wanted to make sure their book used non-technical language so it could be best understood by anyone who picked it up, because they believe the success of providing habitat for butterflies and all of nature depends on the actions collectively of individuals in protecting habitats for future generations.
While speaking to a standing-room-only crowd at the Blount County Extension Office Auditorium at a gathering sponsored by Blount County Master Gardeners, Paulette explained how spending time with her grandparents, E.N. and Stella Logan, each summer on their rural farm between Rosa and Cleveland impacted her.
Her aunt Maxine Logan, a noted and honored long-term biology teacher in the Birmingham area, also spent summers back at the home farm and delighted in her younger nieces and nephews treks to local rivers and ponds.
"She loved that I was fascinated by anything creeping and crawling," Paulette recalled. "They fired up my imagination and it never stopped."
"Granddaddy was a Methodist pastor and he was a good story teller. We wanted this book to be the same way—to be a good study, not just a scientific or technical journal."
Paulette, in the same way, kept the large crowd’s constant attention as she would interject through the laughter, "I don’t make this stuff up folks!" as she detailed some anecdote about the book’s birthing.
Displaying several of Sara’s digital slides, which are used in the book, Paulette noted a caterpillar being devoured by a yellow jacket.
"Sara was just taking a photo of the caterpillar, looked around and the yellow jacket had set right down and was eating it!," Paulette said.
She explained that aptly illustrated that "a caterpillar’s main job is to eat and KEEP FROM BEING EATEN!"
Whether it is false eyespots on the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar which makes it look like a snake or a tree frog to a hungry bird flying over or caterpillars which feed on plants like the willow tree and ingest the poison (the chemical used to make aspirin) which birds and others can detect makes the caterpillar itself poisonous if eaten.
Other caterpillars were shown with clear "faces" appearing to look into the camera.
"That’s its hind end," Paulette explained. "Just another way of camouflage."
An Eastern Pine Elfin features vertical stripes to blend into the pine foliage. Others chew off the wing stem so fly-over birds can’t see any tell-tell patterns of where caterpillars have been feeding.
Some caterpillars shed their skin four or five times.
"You have to do something after all that eating!" Paulette laughed.
"Butterfly caterpillars don’t spin a cocoon, they just wiggle out until that final shedding reveals the chrysalis with each species having a different chrysalis," Paulette said.
The chrysalis of many species of butterflies are also often camouflaged with some dropping to the ground and looking like acorns, and others looking simply like squirrel or other animal "poop," Paulette said.
(While on one photo shoot, Paulette and Sara carefully carried a handful of the small brown dots to the car thinking they would take them home and observe and photograph them as the butterflies emerged…only to realize when they got to their car they simply had a handful of poop! Paulette told laughingly.)
With each stage lasting about two weeks each, the chrysalis finally splits at the bottom and a rumpled-looking butterfly emerges.
"I’ve seen that hundreds of times and it never ceases to amaze me," Paulette said.
Once again the simple, but now beautiful, insects must fight their natural enemies as praying mantis eat monarch butterflies, and ants and spiders eat others.
So more disguises are vital. Some like the Goat Leaf Leaf Wing butterfly can drop to the ground and blend in completely with a pile of leaves.
Other butterflies, like the Buckeye, feature huge "eyes" on their wings, which they spread if they fear an enemy approaching.
"If’ you’re a bird or a lizard, you want to eat something that’s smaller than you," Paulette explained. "The butterfly will open its wings and will startle the birds with those ‘eyes.’"
While they do help spread pollen in some cases, the major job of adult butterflies is to reproduce, thus starting the cycle from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly all over again.
Much publicity is made about butterfly migrations and Paulette explained a butterfly cannot be counted as a true migrant unless the original butterfly at least STARTS back to its home of origin.
During the question and answer period, Paulette explained that while she’ll almost guarantee butterflies will come to your garden if you plant any of these four: any member of the carrot family (like parsley, dill, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, etc); any kind of milk weed, partridge pea (I) or May Pops, "you need to expand your idea of what to grow because some trees, like hackberry, are hosts as well."
Paulette said, while she loves butterflies, the "15 years I’ve devoted to this project has certainly been a labor of love. What I love most are the wild and wonderful places throughout this state where butterflies and other wildlife find all the ingredients they need to live and breed. Those places are the core of the book and the legacy of Alabama—they must be preserved for future generations."
While Sara was not at the Blount meeting, she later told this reporter: "Photographing butterflies life-cycles has taken me down paths I otherwise wouldn’t have traveled, where I met people I wouldn’t have known. What an interesting, fun, blessing this journey of discovery has been."
(Butterflies of Alabama: Glimpses of Their Lives can be purchased at most major bookstores and is discounted at www.amazon.com)
Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County. She can be reached through her website at www.suzysfarm.com.