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Volume 26, Number 5September/October 1975

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The Salmon Arab

Written and photographed by Peter Harrison Smith

The Salmon Arab has scales and wings, but is neither fish nor fowl. Despite its name, the Salmon Arab is a butterfly. Its non-scientific name signifies its color, a salmon pink, and its home, the Arab world, for the Salmon Arab may be found from Yemen, Oman, and Saudi Arabia in the south to the mountains of Iraq and Turkey in the north. Its habitat is enough to qualify it as an Arab, although it also lives in the deserts of India and Africa. But its life history was, until recently, something of a mystery.

The Salmon Arab was first noted by a Westerner in the autumn of 1804, when the French explorer G.A. Olivier described it in his book Voyage dans l'Empire Othoman. It was a rare and splendid creature he found in a pine forest near Beirut, Lebanon. He described it in detail in the formal scientific Latin used by natural historians of his period. In a free translation, he described his new discovery as having "a pale salmon color with two crenelated black bands and black eyespots on the forward wings, trailed by feather-soft white edges on the rear wings."

Olivier also gave the Salmon Arab its scientific name: Colotis fausta.

In 1899, 95 years after Olivier described the Salmon Arab, Professor and Mrs. Day of the American University of Beirut began a new study. They were baffled by a mystery concerning its life history, for in winter and spring the Salmon Arab disappeared from the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon, Syria and Palestine and could not be found in its dormant stages of eggs or chrysalids, of as a caterpillar. Despite intensive study, the Days failed to explain the mystery of the whereabouts of the Salmon Arab for eight months of every year. Only recently has the mystery been partly solved, revealing the remarkable story of the life of the Salmon Arab.

In August of each year, the Salmon Arab is found in abundance in the mountains of Lebanon, Syria and Turkey, fluttering pinkly among the rocks where the caper shrub spreads its spiny, trailing branches. The red-stemmed, thorny caper (Capparis spinosa) is a Mediterranean plant with green buds and white flowers. The flower bud of the caper is used as a condiment by human beings in salads, scrambled eggs, and steak tartare. Man prefers his caper buds pickled in vinegar, but the Salmon Arab likes them just as they grow in nature. Even so, the Salmon Arab is something of a gourmet among butterflies, for its closest relatives feed upon such mundane things as cabbages and beets.

The caper plant is an accommodating host, for it is prolific, growing wild on stony soil amid piles of rock, and is often seen growing out of the chinks in the stones of Arab mountain houses. As winter approaches, however, the caper ceases to bloom and becomes dormant, and by mid-November the Salmon Arab disappears from among its haunts.

In itself there is nothing unusual about this disappearance, for most butterflies are on the wing only briefly each year. They spend most of their life-cycle in the form of eggs, caterpillars and chrysalids. Some spend as much as nine months in one of these stages. The mystery confronting Professor Day was that from November to July none of these three stages of the life cycle of the Salmon Arab could be found in the Arab countries of the Mediterranean coast, which were thought to form the natural habitat of the butterfly. Hence, the dedicated Days spent hours vainly trying to detect which of the stages the butterfly used for surviving winter and, most important, where. For all their efforts, and for all practical purposes, the Salmon Arab was extinct from each December onwards.

It was only recently that lepidopterists have discovered the secret of the Salmon Arab and the discovery justifies the butterfly's last name. The tale begins when, in November, the butterflies commence a journey southwards, taking them from the green mountains of the Mediterranean coastline. They fly south through Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan and down across the deserts of Arabia. Between December and April, the Salmon Arab reaches Oman, Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia. It probably finds a hospitable climate in the green and clement mountains of Saudi Arabia's 'Asir Province on the Red Sea. Here the climatic conditions are favorable in winter and the caper plant is in abundance. But by April the scorching sun dries out even the hardy desert species of Capparis and the butterfly is forced to retrace its migration back towards the north once again. Probably no individual butterfly ever makes the entire journey all the way to Iraq, Lebanon or Syria, a distance of more than 1,600 miles. Rather, it is likely that there are one or two broods in the area between Mecca and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia before the butterfly recommences its northward flight.

Theirs is a purposeful flight in a dead-straight line just above the ground (one intrepid butterfly collector recounts having chased a single butterfly for nine miles). By May the vanguard will have reached Iraq, and by June, the Mediterranean coastline. When climatic conditions become perfect and the supply of capers is plentiful, they will stop, mate and lay their eggs. In only six weeks, in early August, the new brood is on the wing.

These shimmering creatures cannot survive winter in the northern Arab countries, nor can they survive summer in the Arabian Peninsula. The successive broods live a life of perfect adaptation, in perpetual movement back and forth as the season dictates, wringing the maximum benefit from their different environments. Without the remarkable adaptability the Salmon Arab would soon be extinct.

Virtually nothing is known of the physiological mechanisms which allow the butterfly to accomplish this annual triumph. Very little is known of the timing, routes and numbers of their migratory movements. All this information awaits discovery by researchers in the tradition of Olivier and the Days.

Peter Harrison Smith is Assistant Professor of Art and Art History at the American University of Beirut and works summers as a professional photographer in the Middle East.

This article appeared on pages 20-21 of the September/October 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1975 images.