New biography details adventures of 'Fritz Muller, A Naturalist in Brazil'

Blacksuburg, Va. -- Some caterpillars can adjust the color of their chrysalids, or pupae, from brown to green to camouflage them in their environment, so it's no wonder butterflies have evolved to mimic toxic butterflies to save themselves from predators.

In Batesian mimicry, non-toxic butterflies mimic toxic ones for protection. In Mllerian mimicry, toxic butterflies mimic other toxic butterflies to further ensure their safety. In many Batesian species, only the female mimics the toxic butterfly.

"The male uses its color to attract the female," David West said, "so it may stand to lose the effects of that by mimicking other butterflies." The study of mimicry led West, associate professor emeritus of biology at Virginia Tech, from local butterflies to Brazil to research an unusual swallowtail butterfly species in which both males and females mimic a toxic butterfly.

In Brazil, West became familiar with a legendary figure, Fritz Mller, whose adventures as a pioneer farmer and naturalist in Brazil during the 19th century West details in his biography Fritz Mller, A Naturalist in Brazil. Mller, who had emigrated to Brazil because he had broken with religion and was a liberal when Germany was ruled by ultra-conservatives, discovered Mllerian mimicry.

Charles Darwin called Mller the "prince of observers" and considered Mller's ideas most valuable. West read a German biography of Mller "hoping to find a description of the landscape when European settlers first arrived" in Brazil and "became fascinated with the man himself." Mller had supported the theory of natural selection even when its prominence was waning. His experiences in the rich, natural world of southern Brazil, and his extensive correspondence with Charles Darwin make him a pivotal figure in the history of Darwinism and the development of the theory of evolution. "For these reasons," West wrote in the introduction, "a new biography of Fritz Mller seems desira

Contact: Sally Harris
Virginia Tech

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