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Butterflies - Hibernation Or Winter Lethargy

( Originally Published 1917 )

The ways in which butterflies spend the winter are al-ways of peculiar interest to the naturalist. Here are creatures with four distinct stages of existence, each of which has the possibility of carrying the species through the season of cold. It is necessary to learn for each in-sect which stage has been chosen for the purpose, and if possible to find the reasons for the choice.

As a rule the related members of a group are likely to hibernate in a similar stage. Thus most of the Swallowtails pass the winter as chrysalids while practically all the Angle wings pass the winter as adults. This rule, however, has many exceptions, for one will often find does related species which differ in the stage of hibernation.

As one would expect, the conditions of hibernation vary greatly with the latitude. In the severe climate of the far north the conditions are likely to be more uniform than in the South where the milder climate permits greater variation to the insect. In some eases where a butterfly hibernates in only one stage in Canada it may pass the winter in two or more stages in Alabama or Florida.

In many other orders of insects the egg is a favorite stage for hibernation. Even in the closely related moths it is often chosen by many species, but comparatively few butterflies pass the winter in the egg stage. The little Bronze Copper may serve as one example of this limited group.

The conditions as to hibernation by the larvae of butter-flies are very different from those of the egg. It has been estimated that probably half of all our species pass the winter in some stage of caterpillar growth. This varies all the way from the newly hatched caterpillar which hibernates without tasting food to the fully grown caterpillar which hibernates full fed and changes to a chrysalis in spring without eating anything at that time. A large proportion, however, feed both in fall and spring, going through the winter when approximately half grown.

The Graylings and the Fritillaries are typical examples of butterflies which hibernate as newly hatched larvae. The eggs are laid in autumn upon or near the food plants and the caterpillars gnaw their way out of the shells and seek seclusion at once, finding such shelter as they may in the materials on the soil surface. In spring they begin to feed as soon as the weather permits and complete their growth from then on.

The half grown caterpillars may hibernate either as free creatures under boards, stones, or in the turfy grass, or they may be protected by special shelters which they have provided for themselves in their earlier life. In the ease of the latter each may have a shelter of its own or there may be a common shelter for a colony of caterpillars. Among the examples of those hibernating in miscellaneous situations without special protection the caterpillars of the Tawny Emperor, the Gray Emperor, the Pearl Crescent, and some of the Graylings are examples. Among those which hibernate in individual shelters the Sovereigns, among which our common Viceroy is most familiar, are good examples. Among those which hibernate in a tent woven by the whole colony for the whole colony the Baltimore or Phaeton butterfly is perhaps the best example.

The caterpillars that hibernate when full grown may be grouped in a way somewhat similar to those which are half grown. Many species simply find such shelter as they may at or near the soil surface. The Clouded Sulphur is a good example of these. Others pass the winter in individual shelters made from a leaf or blade. Several of the larger Skippers are good examples of this condition. So far as I know none of our species pass the winter in colonial shelters when full grown.

It would be natural to suppose that the great majority of butterflies would be likely to hibernate in the chrysalis state. Here is a quiet stage in which the insect is unable to move about or to take any food, in which it seems entirely dormant and as a rule is fairly well hidden from the view of enemies. We find, however, that only a rather small proportion of our butterflies has chosen this stage for survival through the winter. The most conspicuous examples are the Swallowtails, nearly all of which hibernate in the chrysalis stage. Other examples are the various Whites, the Orange-tips, and isolated species like the Wanderer, and the Spring Azure and the American Copper. Practically all the butterflies that pass the winter as chrysalids have a silken loop running around near the middle of the body which helps to hold them securely through the long winter months. Apparently none of those chrysalids which hang straight downward are able to survive the winter.

An adult butterfly seems a fragile creature to endure the long cold months of arctic regions. Yet many of our most beautiful species habitually hibernate as adults, finding shelter in such situations as hollow trees, the crevices in rocks, the openings beneath loose bark or even the outer bark on the under side of a Iarge branch. It is significant that most of the adult wintering Angle-wings are northern rather than southern species, some of them being found in arctic regions practically around the world. One of the few-southern forms that hibernates as an adult is the Goat-weed Emperor.

These examples are all cases of true hibernation in a lethargic condition. There are certain butterflies, how-ever, which pass the winter as adults that remain active during this period. Obviously this is impossible in latitudes where the winter is severe, and it involves migration to a warmer climate. The one notable illustration of this is the Monarch butterfly which apparently flies southward to the Gulf states at least and there remains until spring, when individuals come north again. The southward migration may be begun in Canada when the butterflies gather together in enormous flocks that remind one of the gathering of the clans with the migrating birds. This is one of the least understood of insect activities but it has been observed so often and over so long a period of years that there seems to be no questioning the general habit.

Like everything else in relation to living things there are numerous variations in the prevailing modes of hibernation. In the case of many species one can find combinations of two or more stages in which the winter is passed. Probably if we could observe with sufficient care we might be able to find somewhere examples of almost any conceivable double combination as egg with larva or chrysalis or adult the insect hibernating in two of these stages. Many examples are known in which both chrysalis and adult of the same species pass the winter and also of those in which young and well-grown larvae pass the winter. As one would expect, the conditions as to such combinations are likely to be more variable in southern than in northern regions.

Notwithstanding all the attention which has been paid to butterfly life-histories there is still some uncertainty in regard to the hibernation of many of our species. One of the most interesting series of observations which a young naturalist could undertake would be to learn positively how each species of butterfly in his locality passes the winter.

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