Great orange tip

Great orange tips are marked by a speck of bright orange on the upperside of their wings, and a mottled brown underside © Marion Richter/Shutterstock.com

Spotlight: great orange tip

The great orange tip fights for survival by borrowing the outfit of a much deadlier creature.

Without many means of defence, butterflies, moths and their caterpillars often resort to disguise to fool predators and stay alive.

The green caterpillars of Hebomoia glaucippe masquerade as vine snakes to keep danger at bay.

Native to tropical Asian countries, the snake-like caterpillars transform into orange, black and white adults.

Sensational Butterflies exhibition manager Luke Brown says, 'Orange is not a common colour in the butterfly house, so the vibrant wing tips of this species look really striking.

'They are very active on bright days.'

Ambitious disguises

Pretending to be a snake is a big feat for a small caterpillar trying not to be noticed. But if provoked, this species will give it a try.

When disturbed, it lifts its head, looking like a vine snake ready to strike.

It can inflate the segments around its front legs, amplifying the threatening snake-like posture.

Snake-like caterpillars

Caterpillars of Hebomoia glaucippe make themselves look like vine snakes ready to strike © Peellden, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The caterpillar will even spit green fluid if it isn't left alone.

An orange-red and blue marking on the head mimics the eye of a snake and makes the caterpillar's head seem larger and more intimidating.

The little caterpillars are only a few centimetres long. But common green vine snakes (Ahaetulla nasuta), found all over southeast Asia, can grow up to a metre and a half and are mildly venomous.

Despite the size difference, the aim of the disguise is to make predators, including birds and frogs, think twice before attacking.

Flying jewels with toxic wings

Great orange tips are named after the striking orange patches on the upper edges of their wings. They belong to the large Pieridae family of white, yellow and orange species.

Luke says, 'There are several species of orange tip, and the one that's native to the UK is different to the tropical species Hebomoia glaucippe.

'Both the male and female of Hebomoia glaucippe have the orange tips on the wings, whereas in the UK, the female has a dusky grey patch instead.' 

Great orange tip underside

The underside of the butterfly's wings are a mottled brown, tricking predators into thinking the creature is a fallen leaf © Jesse Zhang, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

Adults of the species also employ a form of camouflage to help them survive - the undersides of their wings are mostly a mottled brown. When resting with their wings closed, the butterflies have the appearance of a fallen brown leaf.

A recent discovery showed that the species has a powerful peptide toxin in its wings called glacontryphan-M.

The same toxin is also found in a species of sea snail, Conus marmoreus. More commonly known as the marble cone snail, it injects its prey using a harpoon mechanism.

In butterflies, it is thought this toxin wards off a wide range of predators by producing a bad taste - one more weapon in their arsenal.

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