Butterfly Bonanza at Wildflower Preserve

November 28, 2013

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson


So much of our ability to learn about nature is due to perception.  Thus the large showy butterflies receive a lot of attention because they are obvious.  On a recent walk at Wildflower Preserve I certainly noticed some very spectacular members of a mimicry complex involving the monarch, the queen, the viceroy and the Gulf fritillary. The monarch and queen feed on milkweeds as caterpillars and retain toxins as adults that protect them.  The Gulf fritillary obtains toxins from passionvines and the viceroy from willow.  All are bright reddish orange and black and thus advertise their toxicity to predators and benefit from this joint resemblance.  The monarch is probably the most recognized butterfly by the general public, although few understand about the Muellerian mimicry complex.

In contrast there are large numbers of much smaller butterflies that fly around us virtually unnoticed.  I include myself in the mass of people who have ignored these tiny but beautiful butterflies.  But I have decided to rectify this ignorance by photographing and identifying these little jewels.  However the first problem is seeing them in enough detail so you need either some close focusing binoculars or a good camera.  I have recently photographed three of the most common marvelous mites, the Cassius blue, the little sulphur and the fulvous hairstreak.  This hairstreak is especially interesting since it is a Caribbean species that became established in the US only since its food plant, Brazilian pepper, invaded Florida.  Each of these has a number of very similar relatives that complicate the identification, so a good book such as “A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America” by J. Glassberg is essential.  The presence of so many very similar species is a wonderful illustration of the evolution of sibling species from one original ancestor.

So once your head is spinning with the differential diagnosis of these butterflies and you begin to master them, turn your attention to the myriad of colorful dragonflies that swirl around.  Just to give one spectacular example, consider this male roseate skimmer that is common at Wildflower; he proves that “pretty in pink” does not just apply to females!

Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA
Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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