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Butterflies - The Tribe Of The Sovereigns

( Originally Published 1917 )

No other small group of American butterflies has attracted so much attention as the species of the genus Basilarchia, which have been happily called the tribe of Sovereigns. These are rather large butterflies with rounded wings which are found in one species or another over practically the whole of North America. Some of them are of exceeding beauty and all of them present life-histories of extraordinary interest. At least two of the species are the most notable examples of the mimicry of other butterflies that are shown in our fauna. They also present some extremely interesting problems for the study of natural hybrids and they illustrate in their devdopment some of the most wonderful cases of adaptation to environment that have ever been found.

These butterflies may be considered from so many interesting points of view that it is a bit difficult to know which phases to emphasize. In general, there is a striking similarity in their structure and habits in the earlier stages. The eggs are very nearly alike; the caterpillars resemble one another so closely that even expert entomologists sometimes have to decide what species a collected cater-pillar belongs to by seeing what plant it is feeding upon, and the chrysalids are also very similar.

Some of the more interesting phases in the development of these insects are discussed in connection with the life stories of the different species. A. phase which is characteristic to all of them may well be emphasized here. From the time the caterpillars hatch until they change to chrysalids they illustrate to a marked degree an adaptation through structure and habit which must very largely protect them from attack by birds and other enemies. Their structure and markings are almost grotesque. The body is covered with strange club like appendages and it is colored with a curious mottling of tones of green, drab, brown, and white which is very difficult to describe but which suggests, as the caterpillar rests upon rough bark, simply a bit of bird dung or some natural excrescence. The caterpillars have the habit of feeding at night and remaining upon their perches by day, often assuming positions which are very unusual among insect larvae. Such positions, in which they remain motionless for hours at a time, are undoubtedly of protective value and help to conceal the insect. After the caterpillars are half grown they rest not upon the leaves upon which they feed, but rather upon the bark of twigs or branches where their peculiar structure is likely to make them inconspicuous.

The chrysalids of the Sovereigns are also curiously mottled in color tones that will probably lead to their eing overlooked.

Three distinct species of Sovereigns are found in eastern North America, namely:

The Viceroy, Basilarchia archippus.

The Banded Purple, Basilarchia arthemis.

The Red spotted Purple, Basilarchia astyanax.

The first species, the Viceroy, has a much wider distribution than either of the others. It apparently is found in nearly all localities in which either of these occur, and so includes within its range almost the whole of the United States and much of Canada.

The second of these, the Banded Purple, is a northern form. It is found commonly at least as far north as the Mackenzie River region in British America and southward to central Massachusetts. It also occurs as far west as Nebraska so that it has a very wide distribution in north-ern regions. It is especially abundant in Canada and the White Mountains.

The third, the Red-spotted Purple, is the characteristic form south of latitude 42 degrees. Its range overlaps that of the Banded Purple for about one degree but it is seldom found north of latitude 42 degrees. It seems to range about as far west as the Banded Purple.

There are several other butterflies belonging to this genus which are rarely found and which occur only in certain limited regions. There has been much discussion in regard to these. Some entomologists have thought them simply varieties or dimorphic forms while others have considered them hybrids, An analysis of the conditions shows that these doubtful butterflies occur only in regions where the different species overlap. Thus in the boundary connecting the Banded Purple and the Red-spotted Purple there are forms which resemble these two species in such a way as to suggest that these are the parents of the hybrid. In localities where the Viceroy and the Banded Purple occur there are other forms which seem to connect these two species, and in the locality where the Viceroy and the Red-spotted Purple occur there are still other forms which seem to suggest these as the parents. So the evidence seems pretty conclusive that where these butterflies overlap there are likely to be occasional crosses between the species which result in these natural hybrids.

In the far Western states there are certain other species of Basilarchia which take the place of the eastern form. One of the most abundant of these on the Pacific Coast is sometimes called Lorquin's Admiral (B. lorquini). In Florida there is another species, B. floridensis, which is found in the Southern states. It is the only one whose coloring resembles that of the Viceroy.

The Viceroy

Basilarchia archippus

The common name of this butterfly was probably given it in allusion to its resemblance to the Monarch butterfly.

For the Monarch and the Viceroy have been closely associated in the minds of many observers ever since people began to study butterflies in America. These two insects have become famous as the most notable examples that we have of the mimicking of one butterfly by another. According to the theory which has been held by many naturalists, the Monarch is distasteful to birds and other animals and it advertises the fact by its bright combination of brown and black. The Monarch is thus an example of what has often been called warning coloration. On the other hand, the Viceroy is commonly supposed to have no objectionable taste when eaten by birds, but it so closely resembles the Monarch in its color pattern and its habits of flight that it has been assumed that birds would not touch it because of its resemblance to the distasteful butterfly. There has, however, recently been a reaction among naturalists in regard to the validity of many sup-posed examples of warning coloration and the whole subject is still open to careful investigation.

Whether the Viceroy deserves its celebrity as an insect mimic or not, it is well worthy of study for other reasons. It is a common and attractive butterfly and it has most interesting habits in the larval state. It is found over a large part of North America and flies freely from spring until autumn over meadows, fields, and open glades.

The Yearly Cycle of Life

To trace the yearly cycle of this butterfly's life, let us begin with one of the mother insects flitting along a stream in early summer. She stops now and then to lay an egg on the tip of a leaf on a willow or poplar. She then continues on her way occasionally sipping nectar from any early flowers she may chance to find, and continuing her leisurely life perhaps for several weeks.

The egg thus laid upon the poplar leaf remains in position for a week or more, unless it should be devoured by some wandering ant or discovered by some tiny parasite. If it escapes these dangers, it hatches into a minute caterpillar that escapes from the egg shell through a hole in its side. After it has come out it turns around and eats the remainder of the shell. It then begins feeding upon the tender tissue of the leaf it is resting upon, nibbling at the sides until its appetite is satisfied. Then it retires to the midrib on the lower surface where it remains quietly through the day and thereafter feeds chiefly at night. After about a week it becomes too large for the skin with which it was born, so it moults and immediately devours its cast skin. It continues these operations of feeding and moulting at occasional intervals for several weeks, finally becoming a rather large and curious looking caterpillar, mottled in greenish olive and light gray, with two large horn-like projections from the front of the body.

It finally becomes full grown in this larval state. Then it spins a web of silk upon the bark of the twig and en-tangles the hooked claws of its hind legs in the silken web. It thus hangs downward until the larval skin is shuffled off and the curious pupa with the conspicuous hump upon the middle of its back remains in its place. This chrysalis is of a mottled coloring, very similar to that of the cater-pillar. A week or so later the chrysalis skin breaks open, and the butterfly comes out, catching hold of the twig with its legs and hanging quietly in position while its wings expand.

The butterflies of this brood are likely to appear late in summer. It is the second brood of adult butterflies for the season. These insects have the same leisurely habits as those that were on the wing earlier in the season. In a similar way the mother butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves of willows and poplars, and these eggs soon hatch into young caterpillars that look like those that hatched in early summer. The caterpillars, however, of this autum nal brood have a most interesting habit which was entirely Iacking in those of early summer. Soon after hatching they begin to make for themselves little houses in which to pass the winter. This is very cleverly done by utilizing part of the leaf upon which they are feeding. Each side of the leaf toward its tip is eaten off with the midrib remaining untouched; then the lower half of the leaf which has not been eaten is rolled into a tube and securely sewed together with silken threads. The stem of the leaf is also covered with a similar silken web and se curdy fastened to the twig in such a way that it is impossible for the leaf to fall off when the other Ieaves do. The little caterpillar thus cleverly provides itself with a safe winter home into which it retreats on the approach of cold weather to remain until spring. They enter these little cases head first, and apparently seldom emerge again until the warm spring sun brings them forth to feed upon the developing willow catkins or the unfolding leaves.

The caterpillars that thus pass the winter in these pitcher-like cases are perhaps a third grown. They develop rapidly in spring and are likely to use the cases for resting purposes when they are not feeding. After a few weeks they become full grown caterpillars and change to chrysalides, to change again a little later into the butter, flies that appear in early summer. There are thus two broods of each stage of the insect during the year.

Curious Caterpillar Habits

This brief summary of the yearly history of the Viceroy is by no means adequate as a story of the many interesting things to be told about this insect, which has been carefully studied by several eminent naturalists. One of these is the strange habit the very young caterpillars have of fastening a few bits of leaf together by means of silken threads and then tying the bunch to the denuded rib of the leaf. To explain this, allow me to quote from an admirable essay of the late Samuel H. Scudder, whose studies of butterflies have added so much to our knowledge of these beautiful creatures:

"Soon after birth," wrote Mr. Scudder, "when it has eaten but a very few swaths down the leaf, the little feIIow constructs a small and loose packet from minute bits of leaf and other rejectamenta, loosely fastened to one another and to the midrib, close to but scarcely touching the eaten edge of the leaf; and as fast as the leaf is eaten, it re-moves this packet (continually added to until it becomes almost as big as a small pea) farther and farther down the midrib away from its perch, always keeping it near the eaten edge. It should be noted that it is so loosely attached (the bits of leaf at all possible angles) that it is moved by the least breath. Meanwhile, the caterpillar has been growing larger and more conspicuous, and thus in greater peril from its enemies. There are two possible services that this odd packet may render. A spider wandering over a leaf and observing its motion may seize it, and thinking it has a prize, hurry away with it and leave its architect unharmed. This seems to me rather a strained suggestion, for a wandering spider would probably proceed to investigate it on the spot. Another explanation seems more probable. It should be remembered that the leaves preferred by these creatures as food are mostly such as are easily shaken by the wind, and as the caterpillar moves with the leaf and with all the surrounding leaves (in a continual fluttering in the case of the trembling aspen, and to a less degree in the other food plants), this of itself is a protection to it, as it would more readily escape observation as an object distinct from the leaves, all being in motion together; but on the more stable leaves, like the willow, the motion in a feeble wind would not be sufficient to be serviceable, and here, at least, the packet comes into play. An object in motion among others at rest is a noticeable thing; a fact well recognized among animals, as a host of them show when they fear being seen. This packet attached by loose silken threads moves, as stated, with a breath of wind, and so would distract attention from its architect near by, who has taken pains to place it at the farthest remove from his perch while still (to avoid undesirable steps) on his daily track. If this be really its object, it is surely one of the oddest devices in nature."

The curious winter cases of the Viceroy were first carefully described by the late Dr. C. V. Riley, in one of his classic reports on the insects of Missouri. It is one of the best accounts which has ever been written and is well worth quoting at some length:

"The larvae of the autumnal brood," wrote Doctor Riley, "when about one fourth or one third grown, build for themselves curious little houses in which they pass the winter. First and foremost with wise forethought and being well aware through its natural instincts that the leaf which it has collected for its house will fall to the ground when the cold weather sets in unless it takes measures to prevent this the larva fastens the stem of the leaf with silken cables securely to the twig from which it grows. It then gnaws off the blade of the leaf at its tip end, leaving little else but the midrib. Finally it rolls the remaining part of the blade of the leaf into a cylinder, sewing the edges together with silk. The basal portion of the cylinder is of course tapered to a point as the edges of the leaf are nearly drawn together, not overlapped; and invariably the lower side of the leaf forms the outside of the house so as to have the projecting midrib out of the way of the larva as it reposes snugly on the inside. The whole, when finished, has somewhat the appearance of the leaf of a miniature pitcher-plant (Sarracenia), its length being .50-.65 inch, and its diameter .11-.14 inch.

"These curious little cases may be commonly found upon our willows and poplars in the winter time. I have examined hundreds of them and although they are in-variably built upon this plan, they vary greatly in the degree of perfection which the architect attained; and this is especially the case where they have been built in confinement. The blade on the tip piece is sometimes gnawed oil right down to the rib; at others it is left almost as broad as the tube. Sometimes it is bent over the orifice; at others not. They are also much more irregular and ungainly when made with broad leaves, such as those of the silver poplar, than when made from the more narrow leaves of the willow tree. These autumnal larvae have also another peculiar habit: they exhibit a tendency to build from the time they are hatched and will always eat the leaves from the side, gnawing large holes and cutting along the sides of the midrib. They commence at the tip, and as they work downward toward the base, they collect the debris into a little bunch which they fasten with silk to the midrib. When the hibernaculum is finished the seam is perfectly smooth and the hole ins de is lined with silk. The larva, having completed its work, composes itself for the winter with the hind end toward the orifice. Here it remains till the catkins are in bloom the next spring when it retreats from its house and commences feeding. Not the least wonderful part of this phenomenon is that it is only the autumnal brood of larvae that form pitcher Iike houses to live in during the inclement season of the year--the summer brood having no occasion to shelter themselves from cold." It is an interesting fact that in most northern regions these winter cases are nearly always made so near the ground that they are protected by snow during most of the winter.

When an insect has such a curious habit as that of making these winter cases it seems comparatively easy to explain it as an acquired instinct brought about through the conditions of life during the long period in which successive generations have been laid. But, as Doctor Riley seems to suggest above, it is much more difficult to explain this sort of phenomenon when it occurs only in one of two or more broods during the season.

The Banded Purple

Basilarchia arthemis

None of our common butterflies shows more striking color markings than the Banded Purple. A broad white stripe runs midway through the wings on both surfaces, the white making a strong contrast to the purplish or brownish black of the rest of the wings. This white band is supplemented by rows of fulvous and of blue dots, especially on both surfaces of the hind wings.

This butterfly is a northern form ranging to a large ex-tent north of the regions occupied by the Viceroy. Its life history is very similar to that of the Iatter insect. The caterpillars have the same curious habits and bear a close general resemblance to one another. The Banded Purple butterflies appear in June and lay their eggs in July upon the tips of the leaves of birches, especially the black birch. Almost all of these eggs are laid within two or three feet of the ground. They are of grayish green color. The caterpillars are greenish- or olive-brown.

About a week after the egg is laid it hatches into a small caterpillar that feeds upon the sides of the leaf and rests upon the midrib just as the Viceroy caterpillar does. It continues to feed through July and the early part of August, moulting once or twice before it begins to form the winter case. It usually goes into this during the latter part of August, when it is in the second or third caterpillar stage. From then on it remains quietly in its winter home, being covered by the deep snows during several months, and coming out about the middle of the following May, when the spring warmth starts the buds of its food plant. It then feeds for two or three weeks before it changes to a chrysalis to emerge in June as a butterfly. There seems to be normally but one brood each year although under exceptional conditions some of the eggs laid in July mature into butterflies the same season. But it is probable that these butterflies either do not lay eggs and perish as the cold comes on, or that if they do lay eggs the caterpillars that hatch from them do not get large enough to construct their winter cases. Consequently, it is doubtful if we can consider the insect really two-brooded even in part.

The Red-spotted Purple

Basilarchia astyanax

Were it not for the wonderful iridescence of its wings the Red-spotted Purple would be one of the most plainly marked of the Sovereigns. But the upper surface of both pairs of wings is thickly covered with iridescent scales which give the insect a shimmering beauty that makes it conspicuous among northern butterflies, suggesting something of the marvelous coloring of the large tropical species. The general coloring is a purplish black with rows of white dots along the borders of the wings. The under surface shows much more of the fulvous brown which is so characteristic of the Viceroy, the brownish back-ground being rather thinly overlaid with iridescent scales, but with a large number of spots and stripes, where the fulvous color alone shows.

The favorite food plants of this species belong to the great order R.osaceae which includes the apple, pear, cherry, rose, and many other common trees and shrubs. The egg is laid upon the extreme tip of the leaf, a characteristic habit of all the species of Basilarchia. It obviously must have decided advantages in preserving the eggs from attack by ants, spiders, Ichneumon flies, and other enemies. All of these creatures are constantly patrolling leaf surfaces in search of eggs and minute insects. They are much more likely to find their victims upon the broad general surface than upon the extreme tip of narrowly pointed leaves. The eggs of all these butterflies are small, and pitted much like a tiny little honeycomb with a large number of tiny hairs arising from the surface, These hairs are very similar to the hairs upon the surface of many leaves and they probably assist in leading other in-sects to overlook the eggs. Yet, notwithstanding these devices for protection, it remains true that a large proportion of the eggs are attacked by tiny parasites and probably many others are eaten by ants and spiders. This very fact emphasizes the necessity of such protective features as the laying of one egg in a place upon the tip of a leaf and the hairy covering on the egg shells.

A few days after the eggs are laid each hatches into a small caterpillar that immediately begins feeding upon the green tissues beside it first, however, devouring the empty egg shell. It does not eat the midrib of the leaf, but utilizes it as a perch, generally winding it more or less with silken threads, apparently to make it stronger and to prevent it from curling up. The caterpillar seems to feed chiefly at night, resting quietly by day. After a week or so it moults and then continues feeding as before. It continues to feed and grow for several weeks, moulting regularly until it becomes full fed as a caterpillar. It then spins a web of silk closely upon the bark of twig or branch or possibly upon some other object near at hand. In this web it entangles the hooked claws of its hind legs and hangs downward preparatory to the change to the chrysalis. Soon afterward the last larval skin is shed and the chrysalis hangs in place of the caterpillar. This chrysalis has the characteristic form of all the members of this limited group, the outer skin being well hardened and there being a very prominent projection on the middle of the back.

The chrysalis hangs thus, buffeted more or less by wind and rain for about ten days, then the skin breaks apart and the butterfly emerges.

Over a large part of its range there are two broods of this butterfly each year. The adults appear in early summer and lay eggs which develop into butterflies again during the latter part of summer. The life-history of this generation is the one described in the last paragraph. The eggs laid by these late summer butterflies, however, re-quire a somewhat different story. They hatch in the same way as the others but when the caterpillars have moulted about twice they form a winter case or hibernaculum, in exactly the same way as the caterpillars of the Viceroy. They remain within these winter homes till the following spring, when they come forth and complete their development producing the early summer brood of butterflies with which our story began.

The Vicereine

Basilarchia floridensis

In Florida and some of the other Southern states there is a butterfly which looks almost like the Viceroy except that the brown coloring of the wings is very much darker. The species has been called the Vicereine as it is believed to mimic the Queen Butterfly, a species closely related to the Monarch and occurring in the Southern states. The Vicereine probably has a life-history very similar to that of its northern cousin.

Synopsis of the Sovereigns

Banded Purple (Basilarchia arthemis or Limenitis arthemis). Expanse 2 1/2 inches. Ground color of upper surface of wings black with a distinct white band in bow-like form running across the middle of both wings. A row of six tawny spots just outside the white band on each hind wing and various sub-marginal blue spots outside of these. Under surface tawny brown with the white stripe distinct and many red-brown spots.

Red spotted Purple (Basilarchia astyanax or Limenitis astyanax). Expanse 2 1/2 inches. Ground color brownish black tinged with bluish, especially on the hind wings. No white band but various red and blue spots, especially near the outer margins of the upper surface of both pairs of wings.

Viceroy (Basilarchia carchippus or Limenitis disippus). Expanse 21 inches. General color reddish brown with veins and margins blackish. A narrow black band running across the hind wings just beyond the middle. A series of white spots in all the marginal bands.

Vicereine (Basilarehia,floridensss). Expanse 2 1/2 inches. Similar to the Viceroy but much darker in the brown coloring of all the wings.

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