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Object of the month

September 2022

On many trees you can already see dry leaves, some are even almost bare. There are few species of creatures that hunt for dry leaves, and some butterflies make a very clever use of that. Through thousands of years of evolution, they have acquired a fantastic disguise: they look exactly like a dry leaf. They even have leaf veins and small discolourations and imperfections. No two of these butterflies are the same and some mimic a fungus on the leaf, such as powdery mildew, which looks quite lifelike. The genus of butterflies with this incredible camouflage is called kallima, or leaf butterfly, and several species of it are found in Asia. In the butterfly cabinet, the Mission Museum has a great selection of leaf butterflies from different areas.

We do not know exactly when or how these butterflies were brought into the Mission Museum. In the museum archives that contain hundreds of lists in tiny old-German lettering of Latin names of butterflies and insects, it's like searching for a needle in a haystack. The butterfly cabinet itself does offer some help; the butterflies at the bottom left and right of the cabinet were collected in the 1970s on the high plains of Malaysia (at 1,200 and 1,600 feet, respectively), so they are a recent addition. This species is called Kallima paralekta,  and is signalled by renowned evolutionary Alfred Russel Wallace as one of the best examples of protective camouflage by natural selection.


The other two labelled butterflies are older, a black ink handwritten description names them Kallima limborgii and Kallima horsfieldi. Species collected in Java and Sri Lanka, respectively. The first one even has a date stating that it was collected in 1911. That was twenty years before the museum opened in its present form although it does fall in a period when Brother Berchmanns was already busy. Thus it is highly possibly that these butterflies were already displayed in the butterfly cabinet when the museum opened.

The 'other' side of the butterflies, with shiny blue and bright orange, is strikingly beautiful. But Alfred Russel Wallace reports that 'as soon as they have landed among the dead leaves they are practically invisible, and you won’t manage to find them. You only see them when they fly away again'. Despite their beauty, 'open' leaf butterflies do not stand out among the hundreds of brilliant specimens in the Mission Museum's butterfly cabinet. Dry leaves, however, are easily spotted here.   

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