There's the dead leaf butterfly, which resembles dried foliage when it shuts its wings. There's the Magellan’s iridescent birdwing, whose yellow hindwings appear blue-green when viewed from the right angle. Then there's the broad-tailed swallowtail butterfly, which lives up to its name thanks to its uniquely wide wingtails. All three are members of an estimated 430 species of butterflies that make their home in Taiwan, including 50 that are endemic to the country.
The "kingdom of butterflies" as Taiwan is sometimes called, can thank its area, latitude and isolation for its diverse range of winged insects. The small island has so many butterflies that back in 2003, Oscar Chung at Taiwan Today noted that the data translated to 123 species per every 4,000 square miles.
For decades, many people in Taiwan made their livelihoods selling butterfly specimens and crafts made from the insect's wings. Scholars point to the late '60s and to mid '70s as the peak of this commerce, when butterflies were sold by the kilo to collectors. At one point, the total value of the butterfly exporting trade reached $30 million, making the country the largest butterfly exporter in the world.
But in the following years, as Taiwan shifted from an agricultural to industrial nation, its own development greatly impacted the habitats of its butterflies. Under threat, conservationists are now working on ecological efforts to save and preserve the country’s spectacular flying specimens. Fly along as Smithsonian.com goes on a mission to trail Taiwan's butterflies today:
In the Valley of Yellow Butterflies
The Meinong district in Taiwan's southern countryside has plenty going for it. It's 30 minutes away from Taiwan's second largest city, Kaohsiung, which is home to the country's biggest night market, oodles of public art and one of the world's most beautiful metros (no, seriously).
The district itself is located in a rich, fertile valley surrounded by mountains. It was originally inhabited by the Rukai people, who were pushed out by Hakka settlers in the 18th century. Today, Hakka people continue to put their vibrant stamp on the community through local dishes and festivities. And while the district is worth a visit year-round, (it's the place to go for Taiwan's traditional handcrafted oilpaper umbrellas), late spring and summer are particularly special in Meinong. Why? Because it's butterfly season.
Just around four miles northeast of downtown Meinong is a place called Yellow Butterfly Valley. Come summertime, more than 100 species of butterflies flock to the area, Lonely Planet writes. The valley gets its name from the butterfly whose sheer numbers make it stand out among the rest of the pack—the midsized yellow emigrant. The most-sighted butterfly in the valley, its lemon yellow wings bring a delightful shock of color to the area. But it's certainly not the only butterfly to draw the eye—if you go in late July, you could see half a million butterflies spreading their wings across just a few acres of the valley.
On the Butterfly Trail
The butterfly trail off Jiannan Road brings butterfly watching to a new level—it's an open butterfly museum. Managed by the Butterfly Conservation Society of Taiwan, the trail in the Zhongshan District in Taipei, is 28 acres of winged wonder. Home to 149 species of butterflies among other insects, the park allows visitors to observe the creatures in their natural habitat (and enjoy the mountain cherry blossoms that are planted along the way).
The butterfly trail ends at the National Palace Museum, where butterflies can be found in a more artistic sense via some of the institute's own treasures, like an antique snuff bottle covered in the colorful insects or a hanging scroll that features cats frolicking with butterflies.
A Garden of Butterflies
It doesn't matter what season it is in Taiwan, if you're looking for butterflies, you're sure to find them at the Jinshi Lake Butterfly Garden. Located in Kaohsiung Sanmin District, the garden, open year-round, holds the bragging rights for being the largest butterfly house in the nation, according to Ko Yu-hao and Chen Wei-han at the Taipei Times.
There are hundreds of butterflies on view, Yu-Hao and Wei-han report, with representatives from 30 different species present, including the swallowtail butterfly, Pieridae, Nymphalidae and the Lycaenidae. If you look carefully, you'll see every stage of a butterfly's life cycle taking place in the garden, from egg to larva, pupa to adult.
Since 2001, the Maolin National Scenic Area at the foot of the Central Mountain Range has been bringing some serious environmental muscle to the area east of Kaohsiung City. Its creation has helped conserve one of its greatest natural stars: the common crow butterfly. Each winter, from December to March, millions of the purple-winged butterflies come to the valley to ready for their annual flight to the Dawushan Foothills to skip the chilly winter. The migratory pattern allows for an astonishing sight: a purple butterfly valley.
This colorful phenomenon could have disappeared if it wasn't for the care of conservationists. As Chung reports, a researcher named Chan Chia-lung, a member of the Butterfly Conservation Society of Taiwan, first visited the area in 1990 and noted the wintering butterflies. On a return trip nine years later, he was alarmed to note that some 200,000 butterflies had gone away because a parking spot had been built to facilitate tourists. Chia-lung got the Council of Agriculture to intervene, and the council created a budget for conservation and education efforts. Since then, the butterfly population has continued to rehabilitate.
Respectful tourists are still welcome to take guided tours of the purple butterfly valley. To catch the colorful commotion, all you need to do is make an advance appointment with the local township office.
An Overnight Butterfly Bash
Still can't get enough butterflies? Perhaps it's time to check into the Butterfly Valley Resort. The hotel is the only place to stay in the Fu-Yuan National Forest Park in Hualien County, which is home to its own butterfly valley. True to its name, the resort considers butterfly watching its "most prominent highlight," and visitors can see more than 70 species of butterflies in the valley during peak butterfly season every March to September.
Flitting on the Butterfly Highway
Here's a parting riddle for you. How does the butterfly cross the road? Since 2007, Taiwan's found a pretty good answer. To stop the delicate insects from getting hit by cars, the National Freeway Bureau set up 13-foot high nets along parts of its freeways. The idea is to push the butterflies to fly high above the cars to keep them out of danger. When seasonal migration across the roads become greater than 500 per minute, some freeway lanes even get temporarily shut down in respect of the winged insects.
The effort is the brainchild of Chia-lung, and his initiative has gone a long way in saving butterflies throughout Taiwan, notably the purple milkweed butterfly. Conservationists estimate the country is home to some 2 million of these butterflies, which are known for the white dots on their purple-brown wings. The insect, which winters in southern Taiwan, crosses miles of highway on its annual flight to go north to breed, the BBC notes.