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Butterflies - The Tribe Of The Crescent Spots

( Originally Published 1917 )

The members of this tribe have the following combinations of characters: scaly antennae, with a short stout club some three times as long as broad, and a pair of slender palpi in which the terminal joint is only about half as long as the middle one. There may or may not be a slight ridge running lengthwise of the naked part of the antennal club.

Although more than fifty distinct species belonging to this tribe have been found in North America, very few of these are distributed through the eastern part. Only four are so abundant and widely distributed that they need be treated of here.

Baltimore Checker spot

Euphydryas phaeton

To the naturalist those islands in the seas which are remote from the mainland have long been of especial interest. The life upon them is likely to show the results of many generations of living under unique conditions. The plants and animals are generally distinctive, many of the species having characteristics which differentiate them markedly from those upon the mainland. They show in a thousand ways the effect of isolation and so are of especial value when one attempts to determine the results of unusual conditions upon living things.

In a somewhat similar way the peat bogs or sphagnum swamps which occur here and there over a large part of North America are of especial interest, because in a way they are biological islands in which the conditions of a Iong past age are preserved until the present. These nearly always occur in a little valley surrounded on all sides by hills. Here the water has collected originally into a pond or lake, which has been gradually filling up through the growth of peat mosses and a special set of other plants that develop in such situations. One can still find many stages in the process. In some bogs the surface will be practically covered, although the water beneath may still be so abundant that the matted moss quakes as one walks over it. Sometimes such bogs are really dangerous because the walker may drop through to the water beneath. In most of the bogs, however, the little lake is nearly filled but shows the surface over a small area.

The conditions in these peat bogs have changed little since civilization began. They are relics of an earlier era which have come down to us as types of conditions that once existed very generally. The plant life is unique and consists almost entirely of forms which are found practically nowhere else. There are comparatively few animals living in these peat bogs and all of these are likely to be of especial interest. Among the insects none is more remarkable than the Baltimore Checker-spot butterfly which has several peculiarities that differentiate it from the other members of the group. It seems to have come down to us unchanged from a far remote past and to be living its tranquil life to-day in precisely the same manner as during the time when the mammoth and the mastodon were likely to invade its haunts.

The Baltimore is probably the most local in its distribution of any of the butterflies found throughout Canada and the Northern states. It is to be looked for only in peat bogs and swamps, and it has a remarkable unity in its life-history whether it be found in northern Canada or as far south as West Virginia. The butterfly itself is rather large, measuring a little more than two inches across its expanded wings and being colored with an unusual combination of fulvous and yellow upon a black back-ground. It is present as a rule only from about the first of June to the middle of July. The eggs, in bunches of from one hundred to four hundred, are laid upon the leaves of the plant commonly called snake-head or turtle-head (Chelone glabra). They do not hatch for nearly three weeks; then the little caterpillars emerge together and usually each eats a little of the empty egg shell. They are then likely to form a thin web over the under surface of the leaf beneath which they remain as a small company feeding upon the succulent green tissue. A little later they are likely to begin the construction of a miniature nest by spinning a silken web over the young leaves at the top of the plant. From this time on this silken nest serves as their home, and they utilize it almost as effectively as do our familiar American tent caterpillars the nest which they make in the forks of the wild cherry tree. The Baltimore caterpillars often wander more or less from their tent like home but they generally come back to feed as well as to moult. If the nest is injured by wind or rain, all the caterpillars turn out to repair it and as the need for new food supplies arises they also unite to enlarge the tent. This habit of working together for the common good is very suggestive of the similar habits of the American tent caterpillars. Doors for going in and out are left in the tent during its construction.

The tent thus made is likely to be deserted after the first moult and a new and larger one constructed on another part of the plant. Two or perhaps three such nests may be made from the time the caterpillar hatches until after the second moult. The last nest made is very likely to be upon some neighboring bushy plant or at least to include some branches of such a plant if the bulk of the nest is made upon snake-head. For after the third moult the caterpillars stop feeding and become more or less quiet, thus beginning a nine months' fast, during which they are simply to wait until the return of spring. This fast may be begun any time from the middle of August until early in September, and even when brought indoors the caterpillars cannot be induced to eat. It is evidently the way in which the species has bridged over the winter during the thousands of generations of its existence, and the instinct is so firmly fixed that it cannot be changed. Even in West Virginia, where the caterpillars would have plenty of time during the summer to mature as butterflies that would bring forth another generation of caterpillars that might pass the winter, the condition is the same as in the far northern regions.

So within the shelter of the silken nest these Baltimore caterpillars remain from the middle of August until May. Then when the spring sunshine has sufficiently warmed their cool retreats they come forth and feed greedily upon the young Ieaves. They now soon make up for lost time and complete their growth as caterpillars very quickly. When full fed they wander about in all directions, each hunting its own shelter before becoming a chrysalis. Having found a twig or branch that suits their purpose each hangs downward and changes to a brownish yellow chrysalis, more or less marked with black. It re-mains in this condition for about a fortnight, when it conies forth as the Baltimore butterfly which thus appears again about the first of June.

These butterflies seem to have some of the characteristics of their unique surroundings. There are very few flowers in the peat bogs and it is significant that the butterflies instead of flitting from flower to flower, as do most of our familiar species, fly rather in a slow and lazy fashion from leaf to leaf, lighting upon the foliage or frequently upon the surface of the moss or ground. They seem lethargic and have little of the animation which we usually associate with the name butterfly.

In my mind the Baltimore is associated with the White Mountain butterfly as a survivor of a former geologic period. The latter was developed under colder conditions and now survives only on a few isolated mountain peaks; but the former has survived wherever the peat bog has held its sway during the long ages that the surrounding landscape has been taking on its present-day condition. Many things in the life of the Baltimore point to its primitive condition: the laying of the eggs in loose clusters, the long lethargy of the caterpillars, the limited flight of the butterflies all indicate a creature with habits firmly fixed by long ages of development in a definite environment.

No collector should feel sure that the Baltimore is not to be one of his trophies until he has visited in June every peat bog or sphagnum swamp in his locality. One may search years without finding it, and then come across a dozen in a single day. I well remember the interest with which I first found this species on the margin of a great swamp in Michigan when I was eager for every new butterfly to add to my collection. I had never seen it alive before and the thrill with which the first specimen was captured can be realized only by those remembering similar experiences.

Harris's Checker spot

Cinclidia harrisii

This little butterfly so closely resembles the Pearl Crescent and the Silver Crescent that on the wing it is easily mistaken for them. It really looks more like them than it does the Baltimore Checker-spot, which is considerably larger and darker colored than the present species. This is essentially a northern form occurring only in a narrow strip of country east of Minnesota and Wisconsin, running on the north through southern Canada and on the south through Michigan, New York, and Massachusetts.

This insect is one of the best-known botanists among all the butterflies. In the very difficult group of asters which has caused endless confusion to human botanists these in-sects seem always able to select the one species lister umbellatus. It has been repeatedly found that the caterpillars would starve rather than eat the leaves of other kinds of asters, and so far as known they have never been found feeding outdoors upon any other.

These butterflies appear along roadsides and in open fields about the middle of June. They are often very abundant and are much more generally distributed than the Baltimore Checker-spot. A few weeks later the females lay their eggs upon the aster leaves, the eggs being deposited m clusters of twenty or more on the under side of the leaf. Early in July the little caterpillars come forth and remain together in colonies as they feed upon the green tissues of the leaves. Each is able to spin a silken thread so that wherever they go they weave a web and they soon protect themselves with a slight silken shelter, which is suggestive of the nests made by the Baltimore caterpillar. They continue to live in this manner for several weeks in July and August, growing rather gradually and becoming approximately half grown before the frosts of autumn. Unlike the Baltimore caterpillars they now desert their nests and find shelter at or near the surface of the ground. Here they hibernate, to come forth the following spring and feed again upon the new growth of the aster plants, often doing considerable damage by denuding the young shoots of their leaves. They become full grown in time to change to chrysalids so that the butterflies may emerge in June.

The Silver Crescent

Charidryas nycteis While this species has not the broad distribution for which the Pearl Crescent is notable it occurs over a large part of the United States. Its distribution is bounded broadly by a line running from southern Canada north of Maine to a point in southern Canada north of Montana, whence it runs south through Wyoming and Utah to the corner of Arizona, and thence east through New Mexico and Texas to Ohio and West Virginia, extending south near the coast to North Carolina. It thus includes a broad belt of territory occupying fully one half of the area of the United States.

Throughout this vast area the Silver Crescent is often a purely local species, occurring abundantly during its brief season in some favorable locality but seldom being seen in other places near by. In the north it is single-brooded, the butterflies appearing on the wing during June and commonly disappearing early in July. Late in June the females lay their eggs in clusters of a hundred or less on the under surface of the leaves of various composite plants, notably sunflowers, asters, and a common species of Actinomeris. A. week or more later these hatch into little caterpillars that feed together in colonies upon the green tissues of the leaf, taking only the succulent parenchyma and leaving the network of veins. As one leaf is thus denuded they migrate to another, in this way passing from leaf to leaf for several weeks in summer. They continue to feed until about half grown when they desert the food plant and find shelter at the soil surface. Here they become lethargic and hibernate until the following spring.

They then arouse again and feed upon the tender leaves of the new growth, continuing to eat and grow for a few weeks before they become mature as caterpillars and change to chrysalids. A little later the chrysalids disclose the butterflies which as already indicated appear in June.

In more southern regions the life-story of the species is not so simple. There is at least a partial second brood and it is probable that in many localities the species is both single-brooded and double-brooded. In such a case some of the caterpillars go into hibernation probably about midsummer, remaining quiescent through the later weeks of summer and all the weeks of fall and winter, while others would mature to chrysalids and butterflies in summer, and the butterflies would lay eggs for a second brood of larvae which would hibernate when partially grown. There are opportunities for careful observers to do good work upon the life-history of this species in many parts of its range.

The Pearl Crescent

Phyciodes tharos

Some years ago Mr. Samuel H. Scudder, the most not-able student of New England butterflies, wrote a delightful essay with the title "Butterflies as Botanists." From his long experience in rearing the eggs of these insects he concluded that the egg-laying females know in a most remark-able way the precise kinds of leaves upon which to oviposit. He educed many illustrations in proof of the fact and quoted a remark of Asa Gray, the most eminent of American botanists, that is worth repeating. At that time Scudder had reason to believe that the Pearl Crescent laid its eggs exclusively upon the New England aster. Now the asters as a group have been a source of much trouble to the botanists who have attempted to classify them as to species and variety. The various forms are so similar to one another that different authorities have not agreed as to the limitations of the species. So when Gray was told that this little butterfly was able always to distinguish and select for her egg-laying a single species of this vexes tribe he replied: "If your butterfly selects only that, it is a better botanist than most of us."

While later observers have found that this beautiful little insect is not so exclusive in its choice of a food plant as was formerly believed, it serves to illustrate the fact that a large proportion of the caterpillars of this group have a very narrow range of food plants. In nearly every case where the food is thus restricted the insect feeds only upon species which are closely related to one another, generally falling within a single genus according to the classification of the botanists.

There has been much discussion in regard to the way in which the mother butterfly knows the particular species which she chooses for oviposition. Experiments apparently have shown that she is not dependent upon the sense of sight but rather upon the sense of smell, which as is well known is much more highly developed in insects than in the higher animals. I suppose it is not very strange that a creature which has fed from infancy upon leaves with a certain taste and odor should in its later life respond only to that particular odor and should neglect all others. In a way the butterfly itself is a product of the plant and it probably is not necessary to assume that each butterfly differentiates the odors of all kinds of plants but only that she responds to the fragrance of the one with which she has been particularly associated.

This idea may suggest to various observers an interesting point of view. When you see a butterfly flying leisurely from plant to plant and alighting upon the leaves rather than the blossom, you may be pretty sure that she is beat upon egg-laying. Now watch her to see if she goes at once to the particular kind of. leaves she finally selects or dos she stop momentarily upon neighboring plants, apparently trying to find the one from which the fragrance emanates until at last she reaches it. Such observations have only rarely been recorded and if carefully made, notes being taken on the spot, they would have decided scientific value.

Abundance and Distribution

Few butterflies are more abundant or more widely distributed throughout North America than the beautiful little Pearl Crescent. It occurs over practically the whole of the United States and Canada and is found from early in spring until late in autumn. It is a rather small species with a wing expanse of only about an inch and a quarter, the upper surface of the wings being that tone of reddish brown called fulvous, more or less marked with black wavy lines and dots. The under surface is similar in color, with a small silver crescent near the outer margin of each hind wing.

These butterflies are not very active creatures, although they are commonly found in meadows and pastures along brooks and by the borders of open woods, Instead of laying their eggs singly as do so many of the more active butterflies, they lay them in clusters, often of a hundred or more, one layer of eggs being placed above the other upon the aster leaf. In at least one case observed, the cater-pillars hatch from the layer farthest away from the leaf surface before those of the layer next the leaf surface emerge. This is an interesting provision, for were the latter to come out first they would be likely to disarrange the unhatched eggs. The caterpillars appear about a week after the eggs are laid and remain together in crowded colonies that feed upon the upper surface of the aster leaf. At first they eat only the green tissue, leaving the bare veins, although they are not careful to denude the entire surface of the leaf as so many other caterpillars do. As one leaf is exhausted they pass to another near by, continuing thus to feed in companies for a few weeks. Their general color is blackish, although the black is relieved with yellow dots along the back and a band of a similiar color on each side. Unlike the larger social caterpillars of the Mourning Cloak and other butterflies these larvae do not spin any threads as they crawl from place to place, so there is absolutely no nest made upon the aster leaf. This may possibly be correlated with the fact that these caterpillars are sluggish creatures and when disturbed drop quickly to the soil beneath.

When the caterpillars are full grown, they fall or crawl to the ground and scatter more or less in search of shelter. Each attaches itself to any protection it may have found and changes to a grayish or brownish chrysalis more or less angular. It remains in this condition for a period that varies greatly with the weather conditions, averaging about two weeks.

There are two distinct forms of these butterflies which vary so greatly that they were once considered separate species. They are now known, however, to be only seasonal variations. In New England two broods of the insect occur, one in spring, the other in summer. The spring form is called technically Phyciodes tharos tharos. In this form the under surface of the hind wings is very distinctly marked with blackish spots. The summer form is called Phyciodes tharos morpheus. It is noticeably larger than the spring form and it has very few markings on the under surface of the hind wings.

The Yearly History

As it occurs in New England the yearly history of this little butterfly runs something like this. The spring form of the adult appears in May and lays eggs upon the aster leaves. These eggs hatch into caterpillars that feed upon the aster leaves for several weeks and then change to chrysalids, remaining in the latter stage ten (lays or two weeks. They then come from the chrysalids in the form of the summer butterflies which begin to appear about the middle of July and continue to emerge for at least a month. These lay eggs upon the aster leaves again and the little caterpillars that hatch from them feed for a few weeks or until about the last of September. They are then only partially grown, but they make no attempt to complete their transformation at this time. Instead they drop to the ground and go into hibernation, remaining in this condition until early the following spring. They then begin feeding again and complete their development in time to emerge as the spring form of the butterfly in May.

Some very interesting experiments by William H. Edwards have shown that the smaller, darker spring form of the butterfly is due to cold. ' He placed upon ice chrysalids that would normally produce the summer form and found that the specimens so treated produced the spring form.

This butterfly is one of the best known examples of the variation in the yearly cycle due to differences in latitude. This is readily shown by a brief summary of its life-history, from north to south.

In the far northern climate of Labrador there is but one brood a year and the butterflies belong to what I have been calling the spring form. The butterflies appear on the wing in early summer, lay their eggs upon the aster eaves, and die. The eggs hatch into caterpillars that feed for several weeks, then become dormant and remain. in such shelters as they can find until the following spring. They then change to chrysalids to emerge as butterflies a little later. There is thus but one brood a year and the only form of the butterfly is the small, darker colored variety.

As far south as southern Canada there s a slight variation in this yearly cycle. The spring form of the butterflies appears in May and lays eggs. The eggs hatch into caterpillars; part of these caterpillars mature within a few weeks, change to chrysalids, and come out in July or August as the larger summer form of the butterfly, which in turn lays eggs for the caterpillars that are to winter over in a dormant condition and mature the following season. But the significant fact is that not all of the cater-pillars which thus have hatched in spring go through this cycle. Part of them become dormant when partially grown and continue dormant through summer, autumn, and winter, just as they did in Labrador. Then in spring they develop into the spring form of the butterfly, along with the caterpillars that have hatched from the eggs laid in summer. There is thus what is called an overlapping of the broods.

Farther south, in southern New England, the life-history is more definitely two-brooded each year, as already described in an earlier paragraph. Still farther south, in the region of the Virginias, it is definitely three-brooded, there being at least two summer broods during the year.

How is it that the instinct to become lethargic lies dormant in the summer broods of caterpillars and shows itself only in the autumn brood? Is it perhaps due to a reaction to the colder nights of the later season? If so, possibly one could get interesting light upon the subject by experimenting with placing the summer caterpillars temporarily in an ice chest.

Synopsis of the Crescent-spots

Baltimore Cheeker spot (Euphydryas phaeton or Melitaea phaeton). Expanse 1 3/4 inches. General color purplish black with. the upper surface marked thus: a marginal row of red-brown spots between the veins; two rows of creamy yellow spots inside of the row just mentioned; two or three small red and two or three small white spots near front border of each front wing. Under surface checkered in red-brown and creamy yellow on a blackish back-ground.

Harris's Checker spot (Cinclidia harrisii or Melitaea harrisii). Expanse It inches. This species bears a close general resemblance to the Silver Crescent. It may be distinguished by the fact that the middle joint of each palpus is of uniform size from end to end instead of tapering toward its outer end. The tibial joint of the first pair of legs of the male butterfly is very thick. The upper wing surface is so marked with black that the tawny red coloring shows only in the middle.

Silver Crescent (Chardryas nycteis, Melitaea nycteis or Phyciodes nycteis). Expanse 1 3/4 inches. This species may be known from Harris's Checker-spot by the fact that the middle joint of each palpus tapers from the middle to the tip and that the tibia of each front leg in the male is slender rather than stout. On the lower surface of the wings there is a narrow yellowish marginal line.

Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos or Melitaea tharos). Expanse 1 1/2 inches. General color much lighter than either of the preceding. Terminal joint of each palpus less than a third as long as the middle joint.

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