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Butterflies - The Nymphs

( Originally Published 1917 )

FAMILY Nymphalidae

A large proportion of our most familiar butterflies belongs to this family. The Fritillaries, the Angle-wings, the Sovereigns, and the Emperors are tribes in which practically all the species are of medium or large size. The Crescent-spots include a few which are rather small.

The combinations of characters by which the Nymph family is distinguished are these: Front legs dwarfed into lappets; scaly antennae; veins of fore wings not swollen at base; wings of normal shape, not much longer than wide. Larvae cylindrical, but varying greatly in form, color, and skin coverings. Chrysalids angular in most species, in others rounded.

The stories of the lives of the many members of this family vary considerably, as one would expect from their variety and numbers. We may take, however, the life of the familiar Antiopa or Mourning Cloak as typical of the group, Briefly summarized, its story may thus be told:

During sunny days in spring one may often see a beautiful purple back butterfly, having a cream-colored border along the outer margin of its wings, flying leisurely about, in the vicinity of woods and in the open fields. This insect is called the Antiopa or Mourning Cloak; it is represented natural size in plate opposite page 145. It has passed the winter in this adult condition, having found shelter in some retreat where it is not directly exposed to the storm and stress of the weather.

When the leaves of the elm, willow, and poplar trees are nearly expanded, these butterflies deposit their eggs upon the twigs. These eggs are laid in clusters encircling the twigs, there being twenty or more in each cluster. In the act of oviposition, the butterfly keeps her wings spread out, moving the body and abdomen about as the placing of the eggs necessitates.

About two weeks after the clusters of eggs are thus laid upon the twigs of the food plant, they hatch into small blackish caterpillars, each emerging from the egg shell through a small hole that it eats out of the upper surface. They thus enter upon the second stage in their life-history —the larva or caterpillar stage. As soon as hatched, they crawl to the nearest leaf upon which they range them-selves side by side, with their heads toward the margin of the leaf. They feed in this position, nibbling at the green surface of the leaf-blade and leaving the network of veins untouched.

These caterpillars continue to feed in this manner for about a week, remaining side by side when feeding, and marching in processions from one leaf to another as the food supply is exhausted. Wherever they go, each spins a silken thread on the surface traversed, so that the combination of all the threads makes a sort of carpet that serves as a foothold for the caterpillars. At the end of the week they moult or cast their skins, a process in which the skin of each larva splits open along the back, and the larva crawls out covered with a new skin that had been formed beneath the old one. This new skin stretches a cluster on a twig somewhat after the caterpillar emerges, so that the insect is able to increase considerably in size. At the period of moulting, the caterpillars remain quiet for a short time, but they soon become active again and begin feeding with increased voracity.

During the next three weeks, this moulting process is repeated three times, the caterpillars becoming larger. each time, and leaving their cast skins upon the denuded twigs. They soon scatter more or less over neighboring leaves, but remain in closely associated colonies. As they increase in size, they eat more and more of the leaf substance; when half grown, they devour all but the midrib and the side veins; but when they get Iarger, only the midribs are left.

The carpet web that they form becomes more conspicuous as the caterpillars become full grown. They then leave the tree or shrub on which they have been feeding, and scatter about, seeking some sheltered situation. Having found this perhaps beneath a stump or along the under side of a fence each caterpillar spins a web of silk along the surface. It then entangles the hooked claws of its hind legs in the silken web, and lets its body hang vertically with the head end curved upward. It remains in this position some hours before the skin along the back just behind the head splits apart and is gradually wriggled upward, until finally it is all removed and there hangs in place of the caterpillar a peculiar object having no definite form. But it rapidly assumes a definite form that of the chrysalis which is grayish brown, different specimens varying somewhat in shade.

In this quiet chrysalis, the insect is apparently almost as inert as a mummy. If you touch it it will wriggle a little, but otherwise it hangs there mute and helpless. On the in side, however, the tissues are being made over in such a wonderful way that, in about two weeks, from the mummy ease into which the caterpillar entered there comes a beautiful butterfly.

When this butterfly first breaks through the mummy shell, its wings are very small, although its body, antennae, and legs are well developed. By means of the latter, it clings to the empty chrysalis, while its wings expand. At first these wings are short, but as soon as the insect takes a position in which the wings hang downward, they begin to expand, and soon reach full length, but are more or less crumpled longitudinally, and the front wings are not so wide as the hind ones, hanging Iimply inside the latter.

After the butterfly has thus reached its full form and size, it crawls from the chrysalis to some neighboring support, where it rests quietly for half an hour or more. During the latter part of this time it exercises its unused muscles by slowly opening and closing its wings, until it finally flies away.

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