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Snout Butterflies Or Long Beaks

( Originally Published 1917 )

FAMILY Libytheidae

One has a suggestion of Hobson's choice in the common names of this unique family. If Snout butterflies does not seem sufficiently elegant as a descriptive phrase for such delicate creatures, he can call them the Long-beaks, until he sees that this also is inadequate. As a matter of fact both are misnomers, for the projection from the head that gives them these names is neither a snout nor a beak. It is simply a pair of palpi unusually developed, which perhaps in an early stage of butterfly history served a useful purpose. At present, however, they serve chiefly to set the few owners apart from the other butterflies in the system of classification; although possibly they may also serve the butterfly by helping to give the impression of a leaf attached to a twig.

The Snout Butterfly

Hypatus bachmani

There is a peculiar interest in any form of animal life which can be definitely traced far back through the geologic ages. In nearly every group of living creatures here are certain types which scientists have found were once abundant but which now are on the wane. As a rule these are better represented in the museums through f species than by those now living. To a considerable extent also such forms are likely to present various features which mark their primitive condition and the living allies have peculiarities which set them off as distinct from those of their own relations which have been modeled in a more modern fashion. Among the mammals the curious marsupials, of which our southern opossum is an example, furnish good illustrations of this general truth. Among the birds the curious little Least Bittern is an example. Among the butterflies the strange Snout butterfly is by far the best example.

These Snout butterflies, of which only two species are now living in North America, are the sole representatives with us of the family Libytheidae or the Long beaks. Only one of these species occurs to any extent at least north of Texas. It is the curious little creature called the Snout butterfly, It has a strange appearance due to the angular outline of both front and hind wings and the long palpi which project forward from the head in a way to attract attention. The common name is due to these projecting palpi. Even the coloring is primitive, the general tone of the wings being blackish brown, distinctly marked with white and orange spots. The under surface is less primitive in its coloring, being toned in iridescent grayish brown in a way to suggest protective coloring, except in that part of each front wing which is not hidden when the insect is at rest. This shows the white and orange-brown markings.

Some years ago there were found in certain fossil deposits in the West about a dozen species of fossil butterflies. It is strange indeed that these ethereal creatures should be fossilized at all. One would think it scarcely possible that they could be so preserved that a million years after they had died man should be able to study them, determine to what families they belonged, and even guess with a high probability of accuracy upon what leaves their caterpillars fed. This little collection of fossil butterflies was studied by one of the great American authorities on living butterflies, the late Samuel H. Scudder, who said of them: "They are generally preserved in such fair condition that the course of the nervures and the color patterns of the wings can be determined, and even, in one case, the scales may be studied. As a rule, they are so well preserved that we may feel nearly as confident concerning their affinities with those now living as if we had pinned specimens to examine; and, generally speaking, the older they are the better they are preserved."

A curious fact is that out of the comparatively few species of these fossil butterflies two were easily recognized as members of this Long-beak family. They were given special scientific names and undoubtedly were closely related to the Snout butterfly which is still flying every year various parts of the United States. Our modern species lays its eggs upon the leaves of hackberry and in these geologic deposits of that far-gone era there have been found well-preserved leaves of old hackberry trees, upon which it is extremely probable that the caterpillars of these ancient Long-beaks fed. What an opportunity for a modern collector of butterflies to work his fancy, as he thinks of those old times when these fossil creatures were flying in the sunshine, depositing their eggs upon the leaves of trees that made up landscape pictures probably very different from those of today! And how he wonders what flowers these butterflies visited for their nectar food, what birds chased them from tree to tree, and what mammals wandered through those ancient forests. What a suggestion also it gives of the continuity of life upon our old earth to realize that these butterflies of to-day are carrying on their brief existence in practically the same way that these forbears of theirs did so many millions of years ago.

Another way in which these butterflies are peculiar is the fact that the females have six well-developed legs while the males have only four. As already indicated the cater-pillars feed upon hackberry. When full grown they are about an inch long, dark green, striped with yellow, with two blackish tubercules on the second ring behind the head. They apparently pass the winter in the chrysalis stage. The butterflies are likely to be found along the borders of brooks or streams running through woods, or along the margins of the forest. Occasionally they become abundant in certain localities, but on the whole they are rare and highly prized by collectors.

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