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10 Surprising Facts About Butterflies

Like living fairies, butterflies flutter across flowery meadows on beautiful wings. But put aside your fairy fantasies for a moment and consider that some butterflies drink tears, eat poop, wear false heads, and kill to survive. Here’s a little peek into the darker world of butterflies.

1. THEY EAT POOP AND DRINK TEARS.

Butterflies don’t just drink nectar from flowers. Many of them consume a whole host of revolting things, from poop to urine to decaying animal flesh. They’ll even drink the tears of reptiles to get some much-needed sodium.

Scientists can use these less savory preferences to attract and study butterflies: Researchers trying to attract tropical Skippers will spit on a piece of tissue and put it on the ground, a method known as the Ahrenholz technique [PDF]. Butterflies are attracted to the saliva-soaked tissue because it looks like bird poop, and they stick around because it provides them with sodium and other nutrients. Meanwhile, their presence allows scientists to photograph and collect them.

2. SOME OF THEM ARE CARNIVORES.

A Harvester butterfly. Image credit: khteWisconsin via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Don’t worry, you can visit your garden without risking attack from a swarm of predatory butterflies. But some caterpillars kill for a living. Take the ominously named harvester: This North American butterfly lays its eggs on colonies of woolly aphids, and the caterpillars grow up snacking on the aphids, sometimes protecting themselves with the corpses of their victims.

Then there’s the moth butterfly of Asia and Australia. Protected by tough outer shells, its caterpillars live in ant nests and eat their larvae. But when the caterpillars become butterflies, they’re suddenly soft and vulnerable. They beat a hasty retreat, shedding extra wing scales that stick to their ant pursuers.

3. THEY CAN BE REALLY, REALLY PICKY EATERS.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Say you want to help butterflies, so you plant a beautiful garden full of flowers. Soon, butterflies of all kinds are fluttering around the blossoms. Success! But wait—if you don’t have exactly the right plants, those butterflies won’t have babies. They’ll be genetic dead ends.

That’s because some butterfly caterpillars can only eat the leaves of one plant, or one small group of plants. The Karner blue caterpillar, for example, chows down on just one species: wild blue lupine. The monarch butterfly caterpillar eats only the members of a group of plants called the milkweeds. The Hessel’s hairstreak consumes Atlantic white cedar, which often grows in threatened wetlands.

A caterpillar’s food plants are called host plants—they’re the only species that can host the right dinner party for a growing caterpillar. Once the caterpillars turn to butterflies, they may visit many different plants and drink their nectar. But if they don’t eventually find the right host plants, they can’t have babies, because the female caterpillars will only lay eggs on plants that can serve as hosts. To thrive, butterflies need access to both delicious nectar sources and host plants.

4. THEY USE ANTS AS BABYSITTERS.

Many members of a butterfly family called the Lycaenids, or gossamer-wings, rely on ants to take care of their babies. The caterpillars use special chemicals to attract ants. In some species, such as the Alcon blue, those ants carry the babies back to their nest, and vigorously protect them from parasites, sometimes at the expense of their own kind. This isn’t always an ideal arrangement for the ants—the caterpillars may provide nutrients, but some of them will snack on ant larvae. To fight back, some ants slowly alter their communication chemicals over time so that they no longer match the caterpillar’s signals—effectively changing the locks on their home. The caterpillars must evolve and keep up or risk being ignored completely.

Once they become adults, the relationship can get even more twisted. One species of butterfly, Adeloptypa annulifera, uses ant babysitters, and once it grows up, it steals food from those same ants. It even looks a lot like an ant. Sneaky.

5. SOME ARE A FOOT LONG.

Mark Pellegrinivia Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 2.5

Butterflies can get pretty big. Some Queen Alexandra's birdwing butterflies have a foot-long wingspan. In contrast, the western pygmy blue has a maximum wingspan of about three-quarters of an inch. Perched on a human finger, it looks ridiculously tiny, even when spreading its wings to their full glorious extent.

6. SOME BUTTERFLIES ARE NOT COLORFUL.

Butterflies come in a rainbow of hues. But some of them have such understated colors that you might think they’re moths.

Plenty of butterflies are gray or brown. The gray hairstreak is, well, gray. Arctic butterflies, such as this Jutta arctic, are speckled brown, and are capable of living in remote cold places such as the tundra. The evocatively named dreamy duskywing is also totally brown. Their patterns are lovely if you’re a fan of earth tones.

But the ultimate colorless butterflies are just see-through. Really. The wings of some species, such as the glasswinged butterfly, have minute structural characteristics that cause light to pass right through them.

7. SOME HAVE COLORS WE CAN’T SEE.

Butterflies look at the world in a totally different way than we do. Their eyes aren't adapted to see as many fine details as we can. On the other hand, they can perceive colors outside of our visual range, such as ultraviolet. Many of them make ultraviolet pigments in their wings—so they have patterns that are invisible to human eyes. They may use them to help find the right mate.

8. THEY USE FALSE HEADS TO TRICK PREDATORS.

Birds, lizards, spiders, and other creatures hunt butterflies. Given the choice, a butterfly would prefer to be bitten on its wings instead of a more valuable part, like, say, its face. (If a predator bites a butterfly on its wings, the insect can still fly even with big chunks missing.)

So how can a butterfly encourage a predator to bite its wings and not its head? Some species have false heads on their wings, right next to their butts. These fake heads are a tempting target for spiders and other hunters—especially when a butterfly points its fake head up and wiggles the “antennae.” The predator bites the false head, and the butterfly escapes with its real noggin intact, able to fly another day.

9. THEY STEAL AND USE POISONS.

Their heads aren’t the only weapons that butterflies wield. Some caterpillars absorb poisons from their food plants and use them against predators. Monarch butterflies, for example, collect milkweed toxins to make themselves less tasty to birds. And remember those foot-wide Queen Alexandra’s birdwings? They use the same tactic by munching on a particular toxic vine.

10. SWALLOWTAIL BUTTERFLIES MAKE A STINK.

And here’s another weapon. When swallowtail butterfly caterpillars are threatened, they stick out a colorful stinky organ called an osmeterium. It looks a little like a snake’s tongue and serves to make them seem a lot less tasty to other insects. If you play video games, this might sound familiar: The swallowtail's defensive practice inspired the Pokémon Caterpie, which has a permanently visible osmeterium and defends itself with a powerful odor.

All photos via iStock except where noted.

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6 Times There Were Ties at the Oscars
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getty images (March and Beery)/ istock (oscar)

Only six ties have ever occurred during the Academy Awards' near-90-year history. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) members vote for nominees in their corresponding categories; here are the six times they have come to a split decision.

1. BEST ACTOR // 1932

Back in 1932, at the fifth annual Oscars ceremony, the voting rules were different than they are today. If a nominee received an achievement that came within three votes of the winner, then that achievement (or person) would also receive an award. Actor Fredric March had one more vote than competitor Wallace Beery, but because the votes were so close, the Academy honored both of them. (They beat the category’s only other nominee, Alfred Lunt.) March won for his performance in horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (female writer Frances Marion won Best Screenplay for the film), and Beery won for The Champ, which was remade in 1979 with Ricky Schroder and Jon Voight. Both Beery and March were previous nominees: Beery was nominated for The Big House and March for The Royal Family of Broadway. March won another Oscar in 1947 for The Best Years of Our Lives, also a Best Picture winner. Fun fact: March was the first actor to win an Oscar for a horror film.

2. BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT // 1950

By 1950, the above rule had been changed, but there was still a tie at that year's Oscars. A Chance to Live, an 18-minute movie directed by James L. Shute, tied with animated film So Much for So Little. Shute’s film was a part of Time Inc.’s "The March of Time" newsreel series and chronicles Monsignor John Patrick Carroll-Abbing putting together a Boys’ Home in Italy. Directed by Bugs Bunny’s Chuck Jones, So Much for So Little was a 10-minute animated film about America’s troubling healthcare situation. The films were up against two other movies: a French film named 1848—about the French Revolution of 1848—and a Canadian film entitled The Rising Tide.

3. BEST ACTRESS // 1969

Probably the best-known Oscars tie, this was the second and last time an acting award was split. When presenter Ingrid Bergman opened up the envelope, she discovered a tie between newcomer Barbra Streisand and two-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn—both received 3030 votes. Streisand, who was 26 years old, tied with the 61-year-old The Lion in Winter star, who had already been nominated 10 times in her lengthy career, and won the Best Actress Oscar the previous year for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Hepburn was not in attendance, so all eyes fell on Funny Girl winner Streisand, who wore a revealing, sequined bell-bottomed-pantsuit and gave an inspired speech. “Hello, gorgeous,” she famously said to the statuette, echoing her first line in Funny Girl.

A few years earlier, Babs had received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Fanny Brice in the Broadway musical Funny Girl, but didn’t win. At this point in her career, she was a Grammy-winning singer, but Funny Girl was her movie debut (and what a debut it was). In 1974, Streisand was nominated again for The Way We Were, and won again in 1977 for her and Paul Williams’s song “Evergreen,” from A Star is Born. Four-time Oscar winner Hepburn won her final Oscar in 1982 for On Golden Pond.

4. BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE // 1987

The March 30, 1987 telecast made history with yet another documentary tie, this time for Documentary Feature. Oprah presented the awards to Brigitte Berman’s film about clarinetist Artie Shaw, Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got, and to Down and Out in America, a film about widespread American poverty in the ‘80s. Former Oscar winner Lee Grant (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1976 for Shampoo) directed Down and Out and won the award for producers Joseph Feury and Milton Justice. “This is for the people who are still down and out in America,” Grant said in her acceptance speech.

5. BEST SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION) // 1995

More than 20 years ago—the same year Tom Hanks won for Forrest Gump—the Short Film (Live Action) category saw a tie between two disparate films: the 23-minute British comedy Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and the LGBTQ youth film Trevor. Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi wrote and directed the former, which stars Richard E. Grant (Girls, Withnail & I) as Kafka. The BBC Scotland film envisions Kafka stumbling through writing The Metamorphosis.

Trevor is a dramatic film about a gay 13-year-old boy who attempts suicide. Written by James Lecesne and directed by Peggy Rajski, the film inspired the creation of The Trevor Project to help gay youths in crisis. “We made our film for anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider,” Rajski said in her acceptance speech, which came after Capaldi's. “It celebrates all those who make it through difficult times and mourns those who didn’t.” It was yet another short film ahead of its time.

6. BEST SOUND EDITING // 2013

The latest Oscar tie happened only three years ago, when Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall beat Argo, Django Unchained, and Life of Pi in sound editing. Mark Wahlberg and his animated co-star Ted presented the award to Zero Dark Thirty’s Paul N.J. Ottosson and Skyfall’s Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers. “No B.S., we have a tie,” Wahlberg said to the crowd, assuring them he wasn’t kidding. Ottosson was announced first and gave his speech before Hallberg and Baker Landers found out that they were the other victors.

It wasn’t any of the winners' first trip to the rodeo: Ottosson won two in 2010 for his previous collaboration with Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (Best Achievement in Sound Editing and Sound Mixing); Hallberg previously won an Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing for Braveheart in 1996, and in 2008 both Hallberg and Baker Landers won Best Achievement in Sound Editing for The Bourne Ultimatum.

Ottosson told The Hollywood Reporter he possibly predicted his win: “Just before our category came up another fellow nominee sat next to me and I said, ‘What if there’s a tie, what would they do?’ and then we got a tie,” Ottosson said. Hallberg also commented to the Reporter on his win. “Any time that you get involved in some kind of history making, that would be good.”

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11 Haunting Facts About Beloved

Toni Morrison—who was born on February 18, 1931—made a name for herself with The Bluest Eye, Sula and Song of Solomon, but it wasn’t until 1987’s Beloved, about a runaway slave haunted by the death of her infant daughter, that her legacy was secured. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and was a key factor in the decision to award Morrison the Nobel Prize in 1993. All the awards aside, Beloved is a testament to the horrors of slavery, with its narrative of suffering and repressed memory and its dedication to the more than 60 million who died in bondage. Here are some notable facts about Morrison’s process and the novel’s legacy.

1. IT’S BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

While compiling research for 1974's The Black Book, Morrison came across the story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave from Kentucky who escaped with her husband and four children to Ohio in 1856. A posse caught up with Garner, who killed her youngest daughter and attempted to do the same to her other children rather than let them return to bondage. Once apprehended, her trial transfixed the nation. "She was very calm; she said, 'I’d do it again,'" Morrison told The Paris Review. "That was more than enough to fire my imagination."

2. MORRISON CAME UP WITH THE CHARACTER BELOVED AFTER SHE STARTED WRITING.

The book was originally going to be about the haunting of Sethe by her infant daughter, who she killed (just as Garner did) rather than allow her to return to slavery. A third of the way through writing, though, Morrison realized she needed a flesh-and-blood character who could judge Sethe’s decision. She needed the daughter to come back to life in another form (some interpret it as a grief-driven case of mistaken identity). As she told the National Endowment for the Arts’ NEA Magazine: "I thought the only person who was legitimate, who could decide whether [the killing] was a good thing or not, was the dead girl."

3. SHE WROTE THE ENDING EARLY IN THE WRITING PROCESS.

Morrison has said she likes to know the ending of her books early on, and to write them down once she does. With Beloved, she wrote the ending about a quarter of the way in. "You are forced into having a certain kind of language that will keep the reader asking questions," she told author Carolyn Denard in Toni Morrison: Conversations.

4. MORRISON BECAME FASCINATED WITH SMALL HISTORICAL DETAILS.

To help readers understand the particulars of slavery, Morrison carefully researched historical documents and artifacts. One particular item she became fascinated with: the "bit" that masters would put in slaves' mouths as punishment. She couldn’t find much in the way of pictures or descriptions, but she found enough to imagine the shame slaves would feel. In Beloved, Paul D. tells Sethe that a rooster smiled at him while he wore the bit, indicating that he felt lower than a barnyard animal.

5. SHE ONLY RECENTLY READ THE BOOK HERSELF.

In an appearance on The Colbert Report last year, Morrison said she finally got around to reading Beloved after almost 30 years. Her verdict: "It’s really good!"

6. THE BOOK INSPIRED READERS TO BUILD BENCHES.

When accepting an award from the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1988, Morrison observed that there is no suitable memorial to slavery, "no small bench by the road." Inspired by this line, the Toni Morrison Society started the Bench by the Road Project to remedy the issue. Since 2006, the project has placed 15 benches in locations significant to the history of slavery and the Civil Rights movement, including Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, which served as the point of entry for 40% of slaves brought to America.

7. WHEN BELOVED DIDN’T WIN THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD IN 1987, FELLOW WRITERS PROTESTED.

After the snub, 48 African-American writers, including Maya Angelou, John Edgar Wideman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., signed a letter that appeared in the New York Times Book Review. "For all of America, for all of American letters," the letter addressing Morrison read, "you have advanced the moral and artistic standards by which we must measure the daring and the love of our national imagination and our collective intelligence as a people."

8. IT’S ONE OF THE MOST FREQUENTLY CHALLENGED BOOKS.

Between 2000 and 2009, Beloved ranked 26th on the American Library Association’s list of most banned/challenged books. A recent challenge in Fairfax County, Virginia, cited the novel as too intense for teenage readers, while another challenge in Michigan said the book was, incredibly, overly simplistic and pornographic. Thankfully, both challenges were denied.

9. MORRISON ALSO WROTE AN OPERA BASED ON GARNER’S LIFE.

Ten years ago, Morrison collaborated with Grammy-winning composer Richard Danielpour on Margaret Garner, an opera about the real-life inspiration behind Beloved. It opened in Detroit in 2005, and played in Charlotte, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York before closing in 2008.

10. MORRISON DID NOT WANT IT MADE INTO A MOVIE.

Although she publicly claims otherwise, according to a New York magazine story, Morrison told friends she didn’t want Beloved made into a movie. And she didn’t want Oprah Winfrey (who bought the film rights in 1988) to be in it. Nevertheless, the film came out in 1998 and was a total flop.

11. THERE'S AN ILLUSTRATED VERSION.

The Folio Society, a London-based company that creates fancy special editions of classic books, released the first-ever illustrated Beloved in 2015. Artist Joe Morse had to be personally approved by Morrison for the project. Check out a few of his hauntingly beautiful illustrations here.

This article originally appeared in 2015.

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