Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Butterflies - The Heliconians

( Originally Published 1917 )

Family Heliconidae

This is a tropical family with only a single species migrating northward to our Southern states. The butters flies of this group are characterized by having the wings so long and narrow that their length is usually twice as great as their width. The front legs in both sexes are so poorly developed that they are considered a modification approaching the complete dwarfing found in the Brush-footed butterflies.

The Zebra Butterfly

Heliconius Charitonius While the butterflies of temperate North America show many examples of marvelous beauty and coloring, one must go to the tropics to see the culmination of what nature has done in painting the outstretched membranes of butterfly wings with gorgeous colors. The great butterfly tribes that swarm in tropical forests seldom reach our temperate clime, and even when they do they are likely to show only a suggestion of the splendid size and rich coloring to be seen farther south. The Zebra butterfly (Heliconius charitonius) belongs to one of these tropical tribes. It shows its affinities by its coloring and the curious shape of its wings. In most of our northern butterflies, the wings are about as long as they are wide, but in the tropical family, Heliconidae, they are very much longer than wide. This gives the insect an entirely different look from our common forms so that one recognizes it at once as a stranger within our gates. Indeed, it does not penetrate far into our region, being found commonly only in Florida and one or two other neighboring states, its principal home being in tropical America.

The Zebra butterfly is well named, Across the brownish black wings there runs a series of yellow stripes, three on each front wing and one on each hind wing, with a sub-marginal row of white spots on each of the latter. The under surface is much like the upper, except that the color ing is distinctly paler. It is very variable in size: some specimens may be but two and a half inches across the expanded wings, while others are four inches.

The Zebra caterpillars feed upon the leaves of the passion flower. When full grown they are about an inch and a half long, whitish, more or less marked with brownish black spots arranged in transverse rows, and partially covered with longitudinal rows of barbed black spines.

They change to chrysalids which are remarkable for their irregular shape, with two leaf like projections on the head which the insect can move in a most curious fashion.

One of the most notable things about this insect is the fact that the male butterflies are attracted to the chrysalids of the females even before the latter emerge. Many observers have reported upon this curious phenomenon and have recorded experiments demonstrating that it is a general habit with the species.

The Roosting Habits

The adult butterflies flock together at night and rest upon the Spanish moss which festoons so many of the trees in the Far South, or upon dead branches. They take positions with heads upward and wings closed, many of them often flocking together to roost, and wandering out to the near-by fields when the morning sun gives them renewed activity. But these butterflies are essentially forest insects. Reliable observers have noticed that when one emerges from a chrysalis it flies up in the air and makes straight for the nearest woods. Others have noticed that when a butterfly in a field is alarmed it also makes for the woods. And in the regions where the species is abundant the butterflies are most likely to be found in paths and glades in the forest. Thus they show the influence of their ancestral habitat in the tropical wilderness.

There seems to be a certain amount of ceremony attending the flocking together at night for roosting purposes. A famous English naturalist, Philip Henry Gosse, saw the performance in the West Indies many years ago and described it in these words:

"Passing along a rocky foot-path on a steep wooded mountain side, in the' Parish of St. Elizabeth (Jamaica), about the end of August, 1845, my attention was attracted, just before sunset, by a swarm of these butterflies in a sort of rocky recess, overhung by trees and creepers. They were about twenty in number, and were dancing to and fro, exactly in the manner of gnats, or as Hepioli play at the side of a wood. After watching them awhile, I noticed that some of them were resting with closed wings at the extremities of one or two depending vines. One after another fluttered from the group of dancers to the re posing squadron, and alighted close to the others, so that at length, when only two or three of the fliers were left, the rest were collected in groups of half a dozen each, so close together that each group might have been grasped in the hand. When once one had alighted, it did not in general fly again, but a new-comer, fluttering at the group, seeking to find a place, sometimes disturbed one recently settled, when the wings were thrown open, and one or two flew up again. As there were no leaves on the hanging stalks, the appearance presented by these beautiful butterflies, so crowded together, their long, erect wings pointing in different directions, was not a little curious. I was told by per-sons residing near that every evening they thus assembled, and that I had not seen a third part of the numbers often collected in that spot."

Home | More Articles | Email: