Butterflies & Blossoms Spring 2011

When you come to visit our Butterflies and Blossoms exhibit, one of the first things you’ll notice is that we don’t have every type of butterfly at every time of year. Different butterfly and moth species hatch during different seasons!

Among the first species to emerge at the Butterflies and Blossoms exhibit this spring is one called the question mark (Polygonia interrogationus). Its common name comes from a small, white design (a curved line and a dot) on the brown-colored underside of its wings.

The marking can only be seen when the wings are held in an upright position, such as when these butterflies are feeding. Favorite food species include milkweeds and asters but, when these are unavailable, question marks will also feed on fermenting fruits or carrion (rotting meat). Here at the Zoo, we offer them a menu of apple, orange and banana slices. The more spoiled the fruit, the better they seem to like it.

Joining the question marks are the painted ladies (Vanessa virginiensis), relatives of which can be found throughout most of the world. The native species can be distinguished by two eyespots on the ventral surface (underside) of their wings. After mating, painted ladies lay their eggs on the leaves of thistle, mallow and hollyhock, upon which the caterpillars then feed. Favorite foods of the adult butterflies include thistle, asters, milkweed and privet.

If the red-spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis) had been named the “orange-spotted blue” instead, I doubt that anyone would have objected. This butterfly’s colors are striking. Adults lay their eggs on the leaves of many different trees and shrubs – wild cherry, aspen, poplar, oaks, birch and willow among them – providing a varied diet for the caterpillars that hatch. Adult butterflies, by contrast, prefer to feed on tree sap, rotting fruit, carrion, animal dung and the flower nectar of shrubs like spirea, privet and viburnum.

Cabbage whites (Pieris rapae) are among the first butterflies to appear come springtime and the last to depart in the autumn. They are native to Europe, Africa and North Asia, but have been introduced to North America. As the common name might suggest, the larvae of these butterflies have an affinity for plants of the mustard family, including cabbage, kale, broccoli, radish and horseradish, which puts this species in the category of garden pest. The nectar of dandelions, clover, asters and mint serves as food for the adults.

See if you can find these lovely insects the next time you visit the zoo, or even in your own backyard!

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Lepidoptera. The word doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but you can use it the next time you refer to any of the world’s many thousands of species of butterflies and moths. They are all lepidopterans.

The word comes from the ancient Greek language. The first part, lepido, means “scale”. The second part, ptera, translates as “wing”. So, lepidopterans – butterflies and moths – are members of the insect class whose wings are composed of scales. This trait isn’t easily seen at a distance. You’ll need a closer look, perhaps with a magnifying glass, to really appreciate the natural design and beauty of any insect wing.

When you do get up close and personal with any of your neighborhood lepidopterans, take the opportunity to check out the following characteristics:

The Anatomy of a Spicebush Swallowtail - click to make bigger.

  • Two large compound eyes
  • Paired antennae
  • A long thin mouthpart called a proboscis, which is sometimes coiled
  • Three pairs of jointed legs
  • Three main body segments – head, thorax and abdomen

The closer we observe living creatures, the better we understand and appreciate them.

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The First Butterflies

Paleontologists – scientists who study fossils – believe that the first butterflies appeared
on Earth between 40 and 50 million years ago during the Age of Mammals. Moths
appeared much earlier – during the Age of Dinosaurs – perhaps as long as 140 million
years ago. Since the vast majority of fossils consist of hard bony material, the fact that
the delicate remains of these winged insects have survived for so many millions of years
is quite incredible.
The oldest butterfly fossils were formed in fine ash or in amber, the hardened resin of
trees long dead. If conditions are just right, even the softest insect body parts can retain
their original form when immersed in this liquid medium, which eventually solidifies
over the course of millennia. What makes it difficult for paleontologists to trace the
evolution of butterflies is that the number of fossil specimens is so small – probably no
more than a hundred discovered thus far.
Today the world is home to somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 butterfly species. No
one can say for certain. However many there are, we should consider ourselves lucky
that butterflies survived as long as they have and didn’t go the way of the dinosaurs.

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Why Butterflies are so Beautiful

According to Native American legend …

One day the Great Spirit sat and watched as children played in the village.  

They laughed and sang, but his heart was sad. He thought of the future, how the children would one day grow old, with wrinkled skin and hair turned gray. How their teeth would fall out. How the strong arms of the young hunters would weaken and the beautiful maiden girls would grow ugly and fat. Playful puppies would one day lose their sight and become mangy old dogs. And the brightly colored flowers of the field – adorned in yellow, red, blue, and purple – would wither and fade.

The Great Spirit decided that he must preserve all the beautiful colors that he could see that day.  He took out his bag and began gathering things.  He snatched a golden ray of sunlight, a handful of brilliant blue sky, some pure white cornmeal, the black of a beautiful girl’s hair, the yellow of the falling leaves, the green of the pine needles, and the red, purple, and orange from the flowers that surrounded him. He put all these colorful things into a bag and then added the songs of birds that flew in the skies above.

The Great Spirit returned to where the children were playing. He called them over, gave them the bag and asked them to open it. When they did, hundreds of butterflies emerged and fluttered around their heads. The children exclaimed that they had never seen anything so beautiful. When the butterflies began to sing, the children smiled in delight.

But then a songbird landed on the Great Spirit’s shoulder and scolded him.  The bird told the Great Spirit that it wasn’t right to give the gift of song to the butterflies, since they already possessed all the colors of the rainbow.  The Great Spirit thought for a minute and then agreed.  He took back the song from the butterflies and that is why they remain silent to this day.

However, butterflies are still among the most beautiful of all Earth’s creatures.

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