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

June 16, 2003

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

Charles Darwin called Müller the "prince of observers" and considered Müller's ideas most valuable. West read a German biography of Müller "hoping to find a description of the landscape when European settlers first arrived" in Brazil and "became fascinated with the man himself." Müller 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 Müller seems desirable...." He used for its narrative framework his translation of Alfred Müller's earlier biography, but edited and supplemented it with chapters of his own.

"David West has given us a superb biography of the German exile in Brazil who played a little-recognized role in supplying Darwin with important data for his post-1865 evolutionary writings," according to Duncan Porter, director of The Darwin Correspondence Project and professor of biology at Virginia Tech.

"It is time that Frizt Müller, Brazil's greatest naturalist and friend of Charles Darwin, received the proper recognition," according to Ernst Mayr, the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology Emeritus at Harvard University...."It is most praiseworthy that Brazil's foremost naturalist is being celebrated in this splendid biography. It is a fascinating story."

West, who retired from Virginia Tech in 1998, has also published on industrial melanism, butterfly pupal color and pupation behavior, and mimicry in a Brazilian swallowtail butterfly.
Fritz Muller, A Naturalist in Brazil was published by Pocahontas Press Inc. and can be obtained by calling the publisher at 1-800-446-0467 or writing P.O. Box F, Blacksburg, 24063-1020.

Virginia Tech

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