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An Obsession with Butterflies


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About the Author

Sharman Apt Russell is the author of several books, including Hunger and Songs of the Fluteplayer, which won the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award. She has written for publications including Discover and Nature Conservancy, and currently contributes to OnEarth, the magazine for the National Resource defence Council. Russell teaches creative writing at Western New Mexico University and at Antioch University in Los Angeles, California. She lives in Silver City, New Mexico.


As she did in Anatomy of a Rose, Russell focuses on the natural world here, now concentrating on insects that have long fascinated humans with their beauty, grace and magical ability to transform themselves from lowly caterpillars. According to the author, there are about 18,000 species of known butterflies, varying in color, mating behavior and migratory patterns. Russell merges wit, knowledge and poetic language in this engaging scientific rumination, recounting the stories of several obsessed collectors, including Eleanor Granville, who, in the early 1700s, was declared insane because of her hobby. Vladimir Nabokov is known to entomologists as the man who not only discovered several butterfly species, but reclassified North and South American blues. Russell provides many interesting anecdotes about butterfly mating practices and explains the difference between moths and butterflies. The monarch, for example, drops on the female and forces her to the ground, while a male queen butterfly more sensitively attracts his mate by the scent of the alkaloids he has ingested for this purpose. Some species, like male Apollos, are able to glue a sphragis, or shell, over the female's abdomen that functions as a chastity belt to prevent her from remating and losing the original male's sperm. Russell has produced a well researched and beautifully written natural history of these colorful insects. (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

"Evocative...An Obsession with Butterflies offers a short but engrossing tour of their fascinating world."

Flashes of yellow and dazzles of metallic blue, butterflies are the most conspicuous of all insects. They are harmless and easy to approach, and their lives are in plain view at every stage: egg, caterpillar, pupa, and adult. This engaging book is more than a popular introduction to the astonishing world of these fragile and exquisite creatures. In 15 short chapters, the author (writing, Western New Mexico Univ. and Antioch Univ.; Anatomy of a Rose) provides an overview of the complex strategies, compromises, and trade-offs integral to the lives of butterflies while incorporating the lives of the people who study them. In clear (but not simplistic) and often poetic prose, she brings to life such potentially dull subjects as life cycles, form and function, behavior, and defenses. Though the author consulted with professionals to ensure accuracy, there are two errors, long perpetuated in the literature: that birds see ultraviolet light (they cannot) and that peacocks display their tails (it's rump feathers; the tail is short). Still, this is excellent for interested lay readers and beginning students of entomology. With an extensive bibliography.-Annette Aiello, Smithsonian Tropical Research Inst., Ancon, Panama Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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