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Parnassian Butterflies

( Originally Published 1917 )

FAMILY Parnassiidae

It is perhaps a bit unfortunate that the group of butterflies, which is commonly chosen to head the list of families, is one that is rarely seen by most collectors. The Parnassians are butterflies of the far north or of high elevations in the mountains. The four species credited to North America have been collected in Alaska and the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains, so there is very little probability of any of them being found in the Eastern states.

While, structurally, these butterflies have a close affinity with the Swallowtails, one would never suspect it from their general appearance. Their bodies are large and all of the wings well rounded, so that there is more of the suggestion of a large moth than of the Swallowtail. The coloring is also more moth-like than with most butterflies, the wings being very light colored and nearly transparent, with markings of gray and brown, arranged in dots and splashes.

All our species belong to the genus Parnassius. The caterpillars show their affinity with those of the Swallow-tails by having the curious scent organs or osmateria just back of the head. They feed upon such alpine plants as stonecrop and saxifrage and are well adapted by their structure and habits to the bleak surroundings of the mountain tops.

As a typical example of the environment in which these butterflies live, we may take the alpine valleys of such mountain regions as Pike's Peak, Prof. M. J. Elrod has described a visit where, at an altitude of 11,500 feet in the month of August, Parnassius smintheus was flying by thousands, and the earlier stages were so abundant that a water ditch had the surface covered as far as one could see with the dead or dying caterpillars. In such situations, where ice forms at night, and snow frequently falls by day, these butterflies develop apparently in greater numbers than almost any of our other species are known to -do in warmer regions.

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