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Book Review: The Butterfly Diaries

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Did you know that butterflies use their wings not only to fly, but also to reflect solar radiation onto their bodies and that the clouds obstructing the sun can sometimes make them inactive? And that the word ‘butterfly’ actually originated from the pale yellow-coloured butterflies (known as Brimstones) in England that looked like butter? Peter Smetacek knows all these and lots more. And in this entertaining book, he superimposes a memoir onto a travelogue to paint a rich tapestry with enchanting landscapes and butterflies fluttering around. Smetacek runs the Butterfly Research Centre at Bhimtal in Uttarakhand, works on the taxonomy and zoo geography of Indian Lepidoptera, and has published nearly 60 papers on the subject.

An authority on Indian butterflies and moths, he takes us into small ecosystems high up in the mountains that are perfect havens for different species of butterflies and moths. Interspersed with those sweet-sounding scientific names, the narrative takes us into forests, ravines, meadows and streams during his quest to document Lepidoptera at different altitude ranges. It’s a free, wild sojourn for you — the different altitudinal ranges include bands from plains up to 1,500 metre, the second from 1,600 to 3,000 metre, the third from 3,000 to 4,000 metre and the last comprising the trans-Himalayan area from 4,000 to 5,800 metre above sea level. Having worked on Lepidoptera for more than 30 years, Peter shares his fascination for these fragile and shortlived creatures from his central vantage point.

Entertaining and informative, the book fills us with a sense of adventure and prompts us to pack our bags and get on a quest to explore these butterflies in their natural habitats. The author also shares his interesting observations about the behaviour of these butterflies —  swing shapes, colour and pattern all help it in surmounting the challenges in nature, and the author mentions how techniques such as motion camouflage and silhouette recognition that are actively used by the Lepidoptera also end up being used by our modern air forces.

He also shares an interesting insight that though butterflies are generally held responsible for pollination, it is the moths that are responsible for pollinating most flowers above the tree line in parts of the Himalayas. Full marks to Smetacek for this masterpiece that many will cherish on their bookshelves for a long time.

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 08-04-2013)