Book of caterpillar foods published

25 April 2008

From bamboo and bark, to mosses, dead leaves and even bugs, if the butterfly caterpillars of Central and South America are known to eat it, it will be in this book.

Natural History Museum scientist, George Beccaloni, and colleagues spent several years compiling scattered information from more than 800 scientific articles and books to produce this A4-size catalogue, published this month.

Front cover of the Catalogue of the hostplants of the Neotropical butterflies

Front cover of the Catalogue of the hostplants of the Neotropical butterflies

It has over 500 pages listing all the plant species known to be eaten by these larval insects. There are more than 18,000 individual records for 1,991 butterfly species feeding on over 3,000 plant species.

The catalogue will be invaluable not only to people who study butterflies, professionally or as amateurs, but also to butterfly farmers who breed butterflies for a living.

'This is the first time that all of this information has been compiled into one handy reference source,' says Beccaloni. 'A lot of it was originally published in difficult to obtain articles and books which are only held by a few large specialist libraries, such as the excellent one we had access to at the Natural History Museum.'

'Our catalogue makes this information much more accessible to the people who want it.'

Help from grant

Beccaloni explained that, 'Thanks to a generous grant, 1,000 copies of the book are being distributed for free to Sociedad Entomológica Aragonesa subscribers and the remaining 1,000 copies are being sold for a subsidised price which is much lower than would be normal for a book of this size and quality.'

Compiling 18,000 records
An ithomiine butterfly from Ecuador © George Beccaloni

An ithomiine butterfly from Ecuador © George Beccaloni

The scientist expanded on some of the meticulous work he and his team had to do. 'Once a reference had been obtained, we had to carefully read it and then type the records from it into a database. These then had to be edited and the scientific names of the butterflies and plants carefully checked and updated. This took myself and my collaborators thousands of hours of work.'

'It is just as well I didn't realise how much time would be involved when I began the project, otherwise I would probably never have started it!'

Neotropical butterflies

Butterflies from Central and South America and the Caribbean (the Neotropics), are some of the most colourful and diverse in the world. There are more than 7,000 species, many more than any other biogeographical region.

Neotropical butterfly caterpillars have a very diverse range of hosts (the plants or occasionally animals that they eat). Their hosts are mostly higher plants like trees and shrubs but there are a few species whose caterpillars feed on mosses and liverworts, dead leaves, bark and even bugs.

Poisonous to humans

Although most caterpillars feed on leaves, some bore into roots, flower or leaf buds, or developing seeds. Many species feed on plants that would be poisonous to humans. For example, ithomiine butterflies (one of the species is pictured at the top of the page) mostly eat plants from the deadly nightshade family, which are packed full of toxic alkaloids. A few are known to store these poisons in their bodies, making the caterpillars and the adult butterflies distasteful to birds and other predators.

Butterfly farming
The pupa of an ithomiine butterfly from Ecuador © George Beccaloni

The pupa of an ithomiine butterfly from Ecuador © George Beccaloni

It is perhaps little known that there is a thriving worldwide market for living butterflies. The many spectacular Neotropical butterfly species means that the demand for them is very high and there are many butterfly farmers based in these regions. The butterflies are exported as pupae.

Butterfly farming is often small-scale and brings benefits to the local community, for example by employing local people. Additionally, it can help protect the forests that the butterflies live in as they need native plant species and prefer intact natural environments.

The catalogue will be a welcome contribution for anyone interested in understanding and protecting Neotropical butterflies and their habitats.

The Catalogue of the hostplants of the Neotropical butterflies is co-published by the Natural History Museum and is available through the Spanish Sociedad Entomológica Aragonesa website ( ).