This one was contributed by John Ingraham, in response to our post about Ralph Lewin (see below).
by John Ingraham
Here's a Ralph Lewin story you might not know. Ralph and Mike Doudoroff (another polymath: student of butterflies and snakes as well as microbial metabolism and taxonomy) were great friends. At the annual Asilomar meetings, Mike and Ralph always hung out together and interacted to everyone's delight and mild apprehension.
On a Saturday of one of the meetings, which would run till Monday, with smiling Ralph beside him, Mike stood up and announced that he was a bit disappointed with the proceedings: Whereas speakers used to share enthusiastically their latest findings, now they only reported results that had been confirmed, reconfirmed, and accepted for publication. So to rekindle the spirit of the meetings old vitality, he and Ralph wanted to report on an experiment that was still under way.
Why, they asked, didn't birds decimate the festoons of Monarchs that hung on the near-by butterfly trees? Do they taste bad? Are they toxic, possibly lethal? Ralph and Mike had just started their experiment during the afternoon break. Visiting the butterfly trees, they focused on two butterflies, one on top of the other. (long pause). Well, Ralph ate the male. Ralph reported that he tasted rather like hazel nuts and that he, Ralph, felt well. Mike promised that at least one of them would report on longer-term toxicity during the Sunday session, which they both did.
When did the Monarch tasting occur? It's been known since the 1960's that Monarchs contain toxic alkaloids (cardiac glycosides) that make them unpalatable to many birds. And dangerous for vertebrates to ingest. I suppose a single butterfly might not be as great a risk to a large human as it would be to a bird, but I wouldn't want to risk eating one. (Monarchs do vary in toxicity -- they accumulate the toxins as larvae from the food plants they consume and some of these don't contain the alkaloids.)
Posted by: Dale Hoyt | January 10, 2009 at 09:06 AM