Nautilus

Tantalizing Creatures with Male and Female Genes

As they often do after a rainstorm, butterflies had gathered around puddles on Pigeon Mountain in northwest Georgia. Nets in hand, James Adams and his friend Irving Finkelstein watched the insects lapping up salts and proteins dissolved in the muddy water, their folded wings yawning apart now and then. There were silvery-blue Celastrinas and Skippers the color of cinnamon and ash. Largest of all were the Tiger Swallowtails—pastel lemon males with black dagger-like stripes and midnight-dark females with a dusting of evening cerulean.

Suddenly a very odd creature flitted past Adams and Finkelstein—a swallowtail unlike any they had ever seen. Its left half was yellow; its right, black. It was as though someone had sliced up two different insects and seamlessly sewn them back together. Finkelstein yelped and took a swipe at the bizarre beauty, missing by quite a bit. Suppressing his excitement, lest it misguide his hand, Adams chased the butterfly a few steps, swung, and netted it. He could see immediately that he had caught a gynandromorph—an animal that was half-male and half-female.

Butterfly collectors love gynandromorphs for their rarity as much as their peculiarity. They are unpredictable hiccups in nature’s symphony of symmetry. The creatures tantalize scientists, too, because they offer a unique opportunity: the chance to study typically male and female genes and anatomy in the same body.

For hundreds of years, naturalists have been documenting gynandromorphs among insects, spiders, lobsters, and birds. More recently, researchers—aided by increasingly sophisticated laboratory tools—have

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