Post-Columbian Irruption

by Christine Adams Beckett

Red Admiral butterfly, courtesy of

A couple of weeks ago, Montclair experienced what is called an irruption, an entomological term describing a surge in numbers due to disturbances of ecological factors, of Red Admiral butterflies.  Points as far north as Ontario and as south as the Carolinas have reported the same natural burst of color belonging to the migrating insect, a lovely and whimsical display of nature.  They have been seen perching on the shoulders of children at Edgemont Park, warming themselves on metal door handles heated by the afternoon sun, and flitting about in the early-sprung flowers in garden patches up and down our suburban streets.  They were a topic of conversation in their own rite, a refreshing change to what is normally on the menu of idle chit chat: the weather, the real estate revaluation, the mayoral election.

The unseasonably warm temperatures that have endured the last few months are to thank for the irruption.  According to Cheryl Tindall, curator of the Niagra Butterfly Conservatory in Niagra Falls, Ontario, the red admiral, buoyed by the mild winter was able to enjoy a mass migration this year thanks to the early spring.  The warm temperatures allowed plants to thrive earlier and better than other years.  Food was plentiful in the world of the Red Admiral, and they celebrated by copious reproduction.  (Please see The Daily News Online for more information).

Africa and Europe, where the Red Admiral also resides, is not seeing a similar surge in their population due to, of course, differing weather patterns of the year.  Their presence on the other side of the Atlantic, however, leads to speculation concerning how they got here (or there) to begin with.  Are they indigenous to both water locked continents or are they an example of the new Homogenocene, an ecological re-connection of all species and the result of globalization, begun at the time of Columbus?

The fascinating tale of the legacy of Columbus reaches beyond conquering a “new” world, which wasn’t exactly virgin territory in 1492.  Entire complex civilizations existed here for about a millennium, especially the Incas of Meso America, but also in the fertile valley of Northern American rivers, namely the Mississippi, beautifully visualized in the beautiful documentary, 1492: The Columbian Exchange.  What was “exchanged” was a host of plant and animal life, some brought deliberately for propagation (such as the delicious and nutritionally perfect tuber, the potato, to Europe.)  But also, other not-so-welcome organisms hitching a ride via the well immunologically defended Europeans to the vulnerable aboriginal peoples of North America, like the small pox virus.  Years later, the new global traders peddled nitrogen-rich guano to the crowded farm lands of Europe for the purpose of fertilization.  The unfortunate stowaway of that trade was a tiny enemy of the potato, reintroducing a natural pest and resulting in the Irish potato famine.  Many Irish Americans, ironically, can trace their roots to an emigrating ancestor fleeing the blight.

Illustration Courtesy of Yale University. From the Florentine Codex (figure 1)16.

The collision of the two natural worlds, which Charles Mann outlines in his book 1493, is what ecologists call The Columbian Exchange.  Mann argues that not since the existence of the uni-continent of Pangaea have our world ecosystems been so interconnected, at times with devastating consequences.  The birth of a global economy 500 years ago changed the face of our continent forever.  Mann also argues that the cultivation of native plants, a popular bi-product of the Whole Foods movement, is an impossibility in actuality.  Most everything in our back yard gardens likely did not grow here 500 years ago.

Wether or not the Red Admiral butterfly hitched a ride here from one of those early slow boats is not known, one can certainly speculate.  To watch them gorgeously flit from door handle to rhododendron (and perhaps from African bougainvillia to mud hut) suggests that it might be a world traveller of old.  So much is just being discovered.  New exchanges are still happening; there are good reasons that customs agents don’t want travelers carrying plant and animal life from foreign locales.As for the warming of our continent causing bizarre bi-products, like abundant fluttery streaks of Red Admiral wings in our yards: a topic for another day.

To read an exceprt from Charles Mann’s 1493, please see Orion Magazine’s website.

If you’d like to do your part for entomological research, feel free to report your Red Admiral sightings here.