Fri, Oct 11, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Highways and Byways: Bugging out in Taipei’s tiniest museum

Taiwan has about two percent of the world’s total insect species, some of which are on view at NTU’s insect museum

By Steven Crook  /  Contributing reporter

Not all the information in Room 207 is presented in English as well as Chinese. However, one of the more detailed bilingual panels explains the discovery of the broad-tailed swallowtail butterfly (Agehana maraho), an endemic butterfly that continues to excite researchers.

First noticed in Yilan in the 1930s, it wasn’t recognized as a species in its own right until the 21st century. Because of its wingspan (up to 10cm) and the unusual shape of its red, brown and white hindwings, it was much sought by collectors. Now listed as a protected species, it was recently determined to have descended from a North American butterfly species which made its way to East Asia between 23 million and 5.33 million years ago.

The broad-tailed swallowtail butterfly is often referred to the “national butterfly of Taiwan.” Because it subsists solely on a type of Sassafras tree found between 900 and 2,400m above sea level, few Taiwanese have been able to see it in the wild.

Another panel outlines the research interests of the department’s professors, such as: conservation; insect behavior, including the dynamics of insect communities; insecticide toxicology and resistance; genetics; neurobiology (especially vision and color perception, which is important when designing yellow flypaper and other lure-and-kill devices); and insects as vectors transmitting animal and plant pathogens.

I was prepared for the silkworm pupae and crickets in the “Insects As Food” section, having sampled these delicacies in Thailand. But the can of sour-cream-and-onion-flavor dung beetles (labeled in English as well as Thai) took me by surprise. There’s no mention of the Taiwanese practice of steeping bee pupae in kaoliang liquor, a concoction which some people believe can help prevent rheumatism, gout and memory decline.

The box of purple-crow butterflies (labeled in English as well as Chinese) would be more interesting if it were accompanied by some information about these species’ remarkable migration. When the weather begins to turn cold, hundreds of thousands of Dwarf Crows, Striped Blue Crows, Double-branded Black Crows, and other butterflies fly around 250km from northern Taiwan. Many of them end up in Maolin District (茂林), where they assemble in such concentrations that this mountainous corner of Kaohsiung County is now known as the “Purple Butterfly Valley.” It’s one of the most remarkable lepidopteran gatherings in the world.

Steven Crook has been writing about travel, culture, and business in Taiwan since 1996. He is the co-author of A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai, and author of Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide, the third edition of which has just been published.

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