A Color-Blind (Not Cockeyed) Lepidopterist


Scientists being thorough and exacting, lepidopterist Julian Donahue of the Natural History Museum has written to clarify my inexpert speculations about butterflies, and to extricate himself from my inaccuracies.

In no field are its practitioners more jealously scrutinized by their colleagues than in science, and I hope that any embarrassment I might have caused my estimable neighbor is inconsequential.

First, when confronted with testimony that the mourning cloak butterfly is not dark brown, as he had said, but purple or burgundy, Donahue admitted he is color-blind, and I quoted him.


Fearful that the museum might have reservations about employing a color- blind Lepidoptera taxonomist, Donahue explains: “It is only a mild red-green color-blindness. I consider it an advantage, in that I am not misled by superficial differences in color that may seem dramatic to a person with normal color vision; rather, I look for, and at, the more meaningful structural differences that occur between species. In fact, some of the animals I work with come in several color forms--red, yellow, orange--yet they are the same species.”

I for one will sleep better knowing that.

A more serious complaint is that I dismissed Donahue as having no opinion on a question when in fact I hadn’t asked him. A more grievous breach of journalistic ethics I can hardly imagine.

The question was what causes a butterfly to light on the upturned derriere of a woman in a bikini. Patti Garrity of Manhattan Beach recalled that she was lying face down on the beach some years ago when a large colorful butterly “tacked down the beach,” in her salty phrase, and landed on the bottom of her pink, green and yellow suit.

Far from having no explanation of that curious incident, Donahue has several. “Aside from possible salt deposits in or on the suit,” he says, “a number of other possible reasons for this particular behavior could be put forth, including attraction to the smell of the suntan lotion (if any), attraction to the colors (butterflies have good color vision, and this one may have been looking for a flower from which to sip nectar); or simply resting on the nearest promontory (however insignificant the owner may have considered it) after a wearying flight into the wind along an otherwise featureless beach.

“In fact, it may have been a migrating butterfly pooped from its travels--in some summers a number of lepidopteran visitors from Arizona and Mexico turn up on our beaches (I am thinking specifically of the pipevine swallowtail, the Queen (a relative of the Monarch, natch), and the cloudless sulfur, rather than the famous Monarch butterfly that arrives on our coast later in the year, to spend the winter).”

Mrs. Garrity said the incident occurred in the fall, so I’m betting it was a Monarch. Also, I’m betting it landed on Mrs. Garrity’s bottom because it was the nearest (and most attractive) promontory.


Donahue also objects to a letter from a reader recalling that she heard Orson Bean say on TV that since “people can communicate with animals, why not with insects?” I do not know whether that’s exactly what Bean said. It may have been a paraphrase.

Donahue points out that insects are animals. Just like birds, fish, protozoa, the Abominable Snowman, and Princess Diana. “Frequently,” he says, “when I refer to butterflies, moths, and other insects as animals, the face of my listener briefly contorts into a quizzical look, followed by comprehension when I pose the simplified classification of the universe in the 20 Questions preamble: ‘animal, vegetable, or mineral?’ Since insects aren’t plants or rocks, they must be animals.”

I hope I have taken Donahue off the hook with his employers. It was all my fault. I’m only a human animal, after all.

I must also apologize to Dick Whittinghill for quoting John Degatina’s reference to his radio heroine, the femme magnifique Helen Trump, as Helen Frump. It sounded wrong to me but I trusted Degatina.

Writes Jane Gifford: “A true follower of Dick Whittinghill would never call Helen Trump Frump, even though she may have been one.”

“She was certainly anything but!” writes Lois Carruth of Toluca Lake, “an old Whittinghill fan.”

Helen! Helen! Try to Forgive me!

Some days I wish I were a butterfly.