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Nabokov’s hilltopping butterflies January 16, 2011

Posted by Jenny in literature, nature, travel, wildlife.
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Quebrada de Humahuaca. Hilltopping was observed near this gorge in northern Argentina.

Note added 2/2/11: By coincidence, a new report has just appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London that confirms Nabokov’s theory of the evolution of the butterflies known as Polyommatus blues. A team of scientists has been working over the past decade to apply gene-sequencing technology to Nabokov’s hypothesis. I thank Kurt Johnson, the co-author of Nabokov’s Blues, described below, for pointing this out to me. I had been completely unaware of the recent developments last month when I wrote here about this subject, one I have been thinking about for several years. You can read a New York Times article about it here.

This post is inspired by a wonderful book titled Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius, by Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates.* As many people realize, Vladimir Nabokov, best known as the author of Lolita but author of some of my very favorites like The Gift, Pnin, Pale Fire, had a passionate interest in the collecting and study of butterflies. However, the image most often carried in the mind of the public is that of an eccentric man bounding about the countryside with a butterfly net—in other words, a hobbyist rather than a scientist.

In fact, Nabokov was a serious lepidopterist, serving as curator of the butterfly collection at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology between 1941 and 1948, and authoring important articles concerning the classification of genus and species within the group of butterflies commonly known as “Blues,” found in many parts of the world.

Butterflies classified by Nabokov: Echinargas in the family Lycaenidae

Because his literary stature overshadowed the interest in lepidoptery, his writings on the subject did not receive the recognition they deserved. But in the 1980s and 1990s, scientists working on the subject of the Blues found that Nabokov’s theoretical work anticipated some important findings in the field, particularly concerning the Blues of Latin America.

Johnson (one of those scientists) and Coates (a journalist) joined forces to create a highly unusual connection  between the worlds of science and literature. To me, the most outstanding aspect of the book is its exploration of the unique places some of the butterflies were found: in a small crater in the Dominican Republic with its own microclimate; in elevations between 10,000′ and 14,000′ in Argentina’s Jujuy province near the Bolivian border; and in the desert environment on the Bolivian-Chilean frontier. A haunting subtext of the discussion is the environmental degradation of some of these areas: for example, deforestation and mining operations in the unique Las Abejas area in the Dominican Republic have nearly destroyed the habitat of the butterflies there.

Common grass Blue

I am going to take just one of those places—the high plateau in Argentina’s Jujuy province known as El Volcan, where the Humahuaca gorge begins—and try to do justice to Johnson and Coates’ description. Dramatic dark, purplish mountains rise from the plateau, and the expedition of lepidopterists had decided to try their luck first with a 10,663′ peak called Cerro Amarillo, for the yellow color that distinguished it from its neighbors. They hoped to find great quantities of butterflies in the act of hilltopping, “in which individuals instinctively fly uphill and eventually congregate in shoals along the ridgetops and summits. This behavior, thought to have evolved as a strategy for finding mates, provided the expedition with its strategy: to collect along the high, barren ridges near Huacalera, at altitudes between 10,000 and more than 12,000 feet.”**

As they drove up to the plateau, they saw the rugged, broken landscape depicted in the photo at the top of this post, its irregularities created by violent seasonal runoff, bumps and crevices that look from a distance much like piles of rubble. “Yet a closer look reveals a fascinating and delicate landscape of small plants and flowers amid the boulders, peppered about like little rock gardens.” A bit further on, they pulled over to observe some butterflies. “Ahead of them unfolded an endless flower garden, speckled with the familiar coin-size flashes of brilliant orange, yellow, red, and blue: butterflies were already in the air, taking advantage of the heat the sun could muster between the cold gusts.”

Robert Eisele, a scientist in the group who had been working in that area for some time, explained that the summer wind blowing that day was rich in oxygen that had breathed out of the vegetation growing at lower elevations nearby, in contrast to the winter winds out of the Bolivian altiplano, very low in oxygen and tending to cause health problems. The expedition’s chances of catching the butterflies hilltopping would depend on subtle fluctuations in wind and the warmth of the sun.

Painting of butterflies by Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1860

When the expedition started its ascent of Cerro Amarillo the next morning, the group split up into several subgroups, some of them unwisely deciding to make a steep, direct assault on the summit. As it turned out, those members got stuck below some cliffs just as the hilltopping started, as the others kept shouting “Up here! Up here!”. “By eleven, after the steady climb up the arched ridge, the collarlike cliffs at 10,500 feet just below the peak were boiling with butterflies, all heading up the slope…. What filled the air was a potpourri of everything alpine—High Andean Whites and Sulphurs, orange-and-black High Andean Fritillaries, and Hairstreaks and Blues. Remarkably, at least for anyone who thinks of butterflies as delicate creatures, they were all navigating a very strong wind as they nectared from the bundles of small blue flowers covering the low bushes scattered around the area. Defying the gusts, they would gain control over their flutter as the wind slackened, using a split second of relative calm to latch onto a flower and hold tight, nectaring away as the wind kicked up again and bent the flowers nearly double…”

It was an exhausting day for the expedition members, not yet fully acclimatized and expending huge amounts of energy in the quick bounds and leaps involving chasing the butterflies over the steep rugged ground. And yet the day was a success, and the expedition’s efforts did much to advance the study and classification of Nabokov’s Blues, whose minute anatomical differences he had observed decades earlier based on limited specimens. If Nabokov could have been there—he had died in 1977—I believe he would have been quite pleased.

Vladimir Nabokov, 1899-1977

* Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates, Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius. McGraw Hill, NewYork, 1999.

** All quotes from the above.

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Comments»

1. notesfromrumbleycottage - January 18, 2011

I did not know what to expect when I came here but the picture in my mind of butterflies assending and dealing with cold winds is amazing. Good post.

Jenny - January 18, 2011

Thanks so much! I have a special affection for these strange parts of the world where seemingly delicate creatures survive just fine.

2. ferris - January 28, 2011

I check your blog periodically to see if you’ve done any smokies rambling so I was surprised to see a post about one of my favorite authors. I read way too much Nabokov while studying English at UT. His “Lectures on Literature” is fantastic. One day I came across an interview with him about butterflies and how he stores them after he’s caught and killed them, saying he would put them in an envelope, date it and write where it was caught. One of the examples he listed was, “Near Gatlinburg, TN, April 21st, 1959.” Curiosity got me wanting to know where near G-vegas he was running around with his big net. Maybe he climbed Leconte? I doubt there is more specific information about his visit but if you or anyone had any I’d love to read about it.

Jenny - January 28, 2011

Nabokov is a long-time favorite of mine. When I was in college, we had an option to do a project called “All by One”–read everything that one author has written. I picked Nabokov, so I read everything he wrote originally in Russian as well as everything he wrote in English. I have always thought he was a genius. I like the idea that he was near Gatlinburg—there might be some diaries or letters that give further info, but it would take some work to find it.


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