What‘s in a name?

A butterfly of such a spectacular appearance has to have an impressive name. Although the exact reasoning behind its name is not clear, we can speculate why it’s called Parnassius Apollo.

Roots in mythology?

Both components of the name come from Greek. Parnassus is the name of a mountain in central Greece known as the mythological home of music and poetry. The mountain was sacred to Apollo and the Corycian nymphs and was the home of the Muses. Accordingly, in ancient Greek mythology Apollo was one of the most revered deities in mythology. He was known as the patron of the muses and arts, healer, and soothsayer. 

So how are the greek god and the butterfly related? This is not known for sure. Maybe the butterfly deserved such an honor due to its appearance. Apollo has always been considered the standard of beauty and attractiveness. The god was often described in the form of a young and beautiful young man, having a long list of love affairs. Among other things, the golden-haired god also personified the sun. So there is a possibility that the Apollo butterfly got its name for its love of warmth and sun-bathed alpine meadows. The butterfly is only out in good weather. When it is cloudy, it prefers to hide in a shelter.

Spreading beyond Earth’s orbit?

The butterfly is not the only one bearing the name. It is wildly used throughout Earth and further. The most famous example is a human spaceflight program Project Apollo run by NASA. The program succeeded in preparing and landing the first humans on the moon. Apollo set several major human spaceflight milestones. It stands alone in sending crewed missions beyond low Earth orbit. Moreover, the Apollo program transferred a massive amount of lunar rocks and soil to Earth, greatly contributing to the understanding of the Moon’s composition and geological history. It spurred advances in many areas of technology incidental to rocketry and human spaceflight, including avionics, telecommunications, and computers.

Extraterrestrial objects also carry the name. Apollo is called an enormous impact crater in the southern hemisphere on the far side of the Moon. And there is the 1862 Apollo asteroid. It is the namesake and the first recognized member of the Apollo asteroids, a subgroup of NEOs which are Earth-crossers. These are near-earth objects that cross the orbit of the Earth when viewed perpendicularly to the ecliptic plane.

Reflection in art?

The butterfly appearance is indeed a work of art worthy of the god’s name. Over the centuries Apollo, of course, was reflected in art multiple times. Thus, visitors can admire a 1.46 m unfinished marble sculpture of Apollo created by Michelangelo in the Bargello Museum in Florence. Stanisław Wyspiański designed a stained glass window depicting a god of the sun in 1904. It can be found in the Medical Society house in Krakow. And between 1927 and 1928 Igor Stravinsky composed a neoclassical ballet called Apollo.

Music didn‘t stay apart. The name was used by several bands, and music labels. It was also used in the names of music albums, such as, for example, Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. This is the ninth solo studio album by British ambient musician Brian Eno, released in 1983 and inspired by the Apollo program. Also, a song called Apollo was performed by Swiss band Timebelle and represented Switzerland in the Eurovision Song Contest 2017. It was devoted to love and devotion to the arts and includes the refrain “I follow you Apollo”.

Taking a rightful place?

Apollo is quite a popular name used in different areas and for different species, too. A German Shepherd Dog that assisted with the rescue operations after the September 11 terror attacks was named Apollo. It was the first search and rescue dog to arrive at the site. At one point, Apollo was almost killed by flames and falling debris. However, he survived, having been drenched after falling into a pool of water just before this incident. It started working again as soon as his human partner had brushed the debris off him. In recognition of the work done Apollo was awarded the Dickin Medal, the animals’ equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

Looks like the butterfly is in good company and can pass the legacy and inspiration behind the name to the next in line.

How Parnassius Apollo and other butterflies tackle Climate Change

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our century. Along with habitat destruction, they are the main drivers of the global biodiversity crisis. There are more species in danger of extinction than ever before. Many studies show that butterflies are among the species that have responded the most to climate change, usually in the form of northward or elevation range shifts. Climate change affects their life cycles, flight times, essential interactions and ultimately survival. 

Parnassius apollo is an exemplary case of these challenges. Since the first half of the twentieth century, P. apollo populations have declined and become rare or extinct in several European countries. The main causes for such a decline are anthropic, such as inadequate shepherding, pollution, tourism, collecting or habitat loss. However, species sensitivity to habitat alteration and climate change also plays a crucial role. 

Sensitive Metamorphosis

Butterflies go through a series of swift and dramatic transformations during their life circle. This metamorphosis is sensitive to climatic changes since the transformation from one stage to the next is synchronous with the rhythms of nature and similar to many other natural cycles. A lot of butterflies possess a special sensitivity to warm environments. Thus a slight increase in temperature, imperceptible to humans carries vital significance to butterflies. It has triggered new patterns in their metamorphosis process and even driven the creatures out of their native habitats.

One of the ways of species adaption is through changing the time of year at which they are active. Such timing of life circle events is called “phenology”, so when species start things earlier in the year they are said to be “advancing its phenology”. Advances to some extent have been observed in a wide range of butterflies and moths.

Studies show that species with more flexible lifecycles are more likely to benefit from an earlier emergence driven by climate change. Some species are able to go from caterpillar to butterfly twice or more per year, allowing population growth to occur. However, there are also other species that are less flexible and restricted to a single reproductive cycle per year. They have no benefit from emerging earlier. Moreover, species specialising in one specific habitat type tend to be harmed by advancing phenology.

Butterflies on the move

As a result of climate warming native butterflies all over the world are currently on the move. They are leaving their homes and going to places with cooler temperatures. Long migrations possess a lot of perils. Sometimes the obstacles on a way make a move impossible, which brings us to the human role in the lives of butterflies. Habitat fragmentation caused by land development combined with climate change threatens butterflies’ survival, depriving them of safe stopover points where they can rest and replenish their energy.

This migration is particularly visible in mountain regions. Thus studies show significant and constant shifts of butterfly distributions in the eastern Alps towards higher elevations. As these changes differ among species, they might result in serious community modifications with possible effects on species interactions and competition. A particular concern is caused by species with a low disposition to dispersal because they usually remain in one habitat for many generations. 

Parnassius apollo populations are small and isolated with distribution restricted to mountain ranges. Global climate change shuffles their vegetation habitat structure, causing plant species to move toward mountain summits. That changes biotic interactions between insects and plants. Climate change also directly affects species distributions, with the elevational distribution of Parnassius species shifting upward on mountains. Yet mountain ranges are finite and even the highest mountains present ecological and evolutionary limits for parnassians.

Protecting one species to protect all the others

As climate change continues, butterflies may find themselves unable to live with us. Due to our reckless treatment of their habitats, we can lose these joyful and beautiful creatures. Yet the protection of butterflies from climate change is important not only for the sake of their beauty. Butterflies play an important role in our ecosystems. Their caterpillars consume large quantities of plants and act as prey for other species. They also act as pollinators of a wide range of plant species. The destruction of butterflies might result in unpredictable cumulative effects for other species in the ecosystem. 

Parnassius apollo acts as an umbrella species for the protection of biodiversity on the ecosystem level and habitat mosaics. By protecting the species itself, other species and habitats associated with it, are also protected. 

The four steps of the endangered beauties: the lifecycle of a butterfly

The butterfly and moth develop through a process called metamorphosis. Translating from Greek that means transformation or change in shape. Insects have two types of metamorphosis. Grasshoppers, crickets, dragonflies and cockroaches have incomplete metamorphosis. Their young (nymph) usually look like small adults but without wings. Butterflies, moths, beetles, flies and bees have complete metamorphosis. The young (larva) are very different from the adults and usually eat different types of food.

There are four stages in the metamorphosis of butterflies and moths: the egg, the larva (caterpillar), the pupa (chrysalis) and the adult butterfly. Each of these stages is unique to individual species of butterflies. Depending on the type of butterfly, the life cycle of a butterfly may take from one month to a whole year.

Egg: The Hatching Stage

A butterfly enters life as a very small oval, round or cylindrical egg. The shape depends on the type of butterfly that laid the egg. Eggs can be laid in spring, summer or fall depending on the species. Females lay a lot of eggs at once so that at least some of them survive. The eggs are usually laid on the leaves of plants, which afterwards will become the food for the hatching caterpillars. The mother uses a glue-like substance to “stick” the egg to the leaf. The egg has a small, funnel-shaped opening for water and air to enter. It also contains nutrients for the caterpillar to grow inside.

Caterpillar: The Feeding Stage

Butterfly larvae are called caterpillars. Tiny caterpillars hatch from the eggs. The first meal for most caterpillars is the eggshell. Then caterpillars start eating the leaf they were born on. That’s why it is very important for the mother to choose the right kind of leaf for her eggs – each caterpillar type has its own preferences. 

Caterpillars do not stay in this stage for very long. They have to grow quickly, so they eat continually. Their exoskeleton (skin) does not stretch or grow, so they “molt” (shed the outgrown skin) several times during their growth. Each time their appearance change, sometimes quite dramatically. Caterpillars can grow 100 times their size during this stage and increase their body mass thousands of times. Food eaten at this time is preserved and used later as an adult.

The caterpillar stage is considered to be the most dangerous in the butterfly lifecycle as the mortality rates are very high. Caterpillars are subject to weather conditions, disease, parasites and predators. Many adult butterfly species lay hundreds of eggs with only a few surviving to become adults.

Pupa: The Transition Stage

When the caterpillar has reached its full size, it turns into a pupa. The pupa of butterflies is also called a chrysalis. This transformation looks like a change from a resting caterpillar to a shell-like covering. The pupal shell is developing underneath the caterpillar’s skin. It can take many forms and shapes depending on the species of butterfly. Once the caterpillar is firmly in place the exoskeleton will split off exposing the pupa. Depending on the species, the pupa can be suspended under a branch, hidden in leaves or buried underground.

From the outside, it looks as if the caterpillar is resting, but inside the body is undergoing an incredible cellular transformation or “metamorphosis”. The transformation consumes so much energy that the pupa loses more than half of its original weight. The limbs and organs are all transformed by the time the pupa is ready to emerge as a butterfly. The time a butterfly spends in the pupa stage varies greatly per species, ranging from a few days to a year.

Adult: The Reproductive Stage

The adult butterfly emerges from the chrysalis with its soft wings folded about its body. It happens because the butterfly had to fit new parts inside of the pupa. The butterfly then hangs with its wings down and pumps the wings with fluids from its body in order to straighten them out. It had to wait several hours for the wings to harden and dry before flying away.

Having accomplished that the butterfly starts flying and searching for a mate. Adult butterflies always seek a chance to reproduce. The fertilized female finds the right type of leaf to lay eggs on and starts the life cycle over again. The lifespan of most adult butterflies is about 2-3 weeks but it can vary greatly among species. Species that overwinter as adults can live for several months.

Apollo butterfly’s lifecycle

The apollo butterfly goes through all of the abovementioned phases of life. The butterflies are on the wing in Central Europe in the lowlands generally from the end of May to July/early August and in high altitudes from June to early September. In the Southern Alps, the first adults appear in early May.

The butterflies breed between the months of June and July. Apollo females usually mate shortly after emerging from pupae, males – on the second or third day. During mating, the males deposit a gelatinous secretion on the abdomen of the female which prevents the female from mating a second time. The female butterfly is capable of laying up to several hundred eggs on the leaves of plants. They have a round shape with a radius of a millimetre, smooth in texture. Caterpillars hatch from the eggs between April and June. The larvae are black with small orange spots. Immediately after hatching, they start feeding actively. Further transformations require a lot of energy. While maturing, the caterpillars molt their skin five times. After they have finished their molting process they fall to the ground and turn into a chrysalis. After two months in the ground, the cocoon opens and a butterfly comes out. It takes around three months for Apollo to turn into an actual butterfly.

The process repeats over and over again. The lifespan of Apollos from larva to adult stage lasts one year. Laid by an adult butterfly, the eggs hibernate and then after a series of transformations, they turn into butterflies, striking us with their beauty.


Further reading

The Life Cycle of Moths and Butterflies by Mary E. Walter

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