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Gliding on Glass
A graduate student finds beauty in a butterfly, whose transparent wings hide a mystery yet to unfold.

Greta morgane is a member of the brushfoot (Nymphalidae) family, true butterflies whose front two legs are small, hairy, and not used for walking—hence the appearance that these butterflies have only four legs.
© Andrey Antov


Photographer Andrey Antov describes his first visit to Magic Wings, a butterfly conservatory in South Deerfield, Massachusetts, as “a dream come true.” It was the first time he saw Greta morgane oto, the transparent-winged butterfly pictured here, and he was transfixed.

Antov, who has been photographing insects for the past 11 years, went back to capture the majestic Greta morgane, or glasswing butterfly, last February. A master’s degree in ecology and years of insect research in his native Bulgaria have helped him understand his subjects’ behavior, Antov says, allowing him to get close to them. Still, the glasswing pictured in these photographs was elusive. Antov had two small flashes—one on the camera and one that he had to maneuver to the other side of the butterfly’s body without spooking it. Just getting himself into position took five minutes.

For his photographs, Andrey Antov used a Nikon D200 with a 60mm Micro Nikkon lens and two small R1 flashes.
© Andrey Antov

Greta morgane is relatively common in its native range in the neotropical forests of Central and South America. As a caterpillar it feeds exclusively on plants in the nightshade (Solanaceae) family, storing the plants’ toxic alkaloids in its tissues. As a butterfly those stored chemicals come in handy by making the glasswing unpalatable to birds. What’s strange about that, says Keith Willmott, assistant curator of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) at the Florida Museum of Natural History, is that most toxic insects—such as the monarch butterfly—warn their predators with bold colors and designs. So why would the glasswings, which are also toxic, have transparent wings? Do they really need the extra camouflage?

Put simply: No one knows. Willmott, who for years has studied ithomiines, the sub-family to which Greta morgane belongs, says that if the point of transparency were camouflage, it would be common among neotropical butterflies of Africa and Asia, too—but it isn’t.

Antov calls this shot “Conversation.” It features Greta morgane oto (left) with a golden helicon (Heliconius hecale).

© Andrey Antov

Perhaps, Willmott suggests, the combination of transparency with color at the edge of the wings—which makes a Greta morgane in flight appear as a strangely isolated, bobbing spot of white—serves as a “sexual signal” among glasswings to identify mates and rivals in the way that color patterns do for other butterflies.

A close-up of the scales on the wing of Greta theudelinda (a species closely related to Greta morgane, with highly transparent wings), top, and those of Tellervo zoilus (a species with more-or-less opaque wings). The scales on the transparent-winged species are hair-like and less densely placed than the leaf-shaped scales of the opaque-winged species.
Courtesy of Keith Willmott

A butterfly’s color pattern, Willmott says, comes from dense arrangements of leaf-shaped, pigmented scales in its wings. But a glasswing’s scales are of a different shape altogether—they’re more like hairs than leaves, and they’re much sparser, allowing the clear inner membranes of their wings to show through. “Think of the difference in ‘transparency’ between a fork (Greta) and a spoon (other butterflies),” Willmott explains.

A glasswing butterfly (Greta morgane oto)
© Andrey Antov

The reasons behind the glasswing’s unique coloring are of less interest to Antov, the photographer, than capturing it on camera. Antov, who is an M.B.A. and Ph.D. (in immunobiology) student at Yale, uses out-of-town conferences as opportunities to look for new photography subjects. Butterfly aficionados are known to travel great distances in search of their subjects, but Antov is just as content at home or in a neighborhood park as he is at a place like Magic Wings. “Once you get down in the grass it’s a whole new world,” Antov says in his softly accented English. “In your own backyard you can see [the most] amazing things.”

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