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Butterflies - Feigning Death

( Originally Published 1917 )

The fact has long been noticed that various butterflies have the habit at times of feigning death and dropping to the ground where they may lie motionless for a considersable period. This habit is most easily observed in some of the Angle-wings, especially those which hibernate as adults. Those species have the under surfaces of their wings colored in. various bark picturing patterns and apparently live through the winter to some extent, resting beneath the bark of large branches or upon the trunks of trees. Many of them also secrete themselves in hollow trees or beneath loose bark or in board piles or stone walls.

It is probable, however, that during the long ages when these insects were adapting themselves to their life conditions, before man interfered with the natural order and furnished various more or less artificial places for hibernation, these butterflies rested more generally upon the under side of branches than they do now.

Even in warm weather when one of these butterflies is suddenly disturbed it is likely to fold its legs upon its body and drop to the ground, allowing itself to be handled with-out showing any signs of life. This habit is doubtless of value, especially during hibernation or possibly during the summer lethargy or aestivation, the latter a habit which may be more general among these butterflies than is now supposed. As the insect lies motionless upon the ground it is very likely to blend so thoroughly with its surroundings that it becomes concealed, and any bird which had startled it from the branch above would have difficulty in finding it.

Some very interesting observations have been made upon the death-feigning instincts of various other insects, especially the beetles. But no one so far as I know has yet made an extended study of the subject in relation to our American butterflies. It is an excellent field for investigation and offers unusual opportunities for photographic records. One of the pictures opposite page 32 shows a photograph which I took of a Mourning Cloak as it was thus playing 'possum. This species exhibits the instinct to a marked degree.

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