Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

August 25, 2008

A Shop Worn Beauty

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:42 pm

  Apart from those “Back to School” ads in the newspapers and the “better get to Cedar Point before it’s all over” spots on the tube, nothing highlights the end of the season more than the sight of a ragged swallowtail butterfly. These crepe-winged creatures are not built of the same stuff as the tough migratory monarchs or durable cold weather anglewings. Every summer day takes a heavy toll on their appearance. Take this shop worn Giant Swallowtail as an example (see above). She definitely has that late August look and bears the marks of one whose life’s work is now complete.

  Earlier in the summer, fresh out of a second brood chrysalis, she was a crisp new beauty with chocolate features and precise yellow make-up (see here). Her underwing pattern was mostly yellow and black with blue and orange highlights (see here). True to their name, Giants are one of the largest of our regional butterflies and females can have a 6 inch plus wingspan. Their species name, Papilio cresphontes appropriately refers to one of the Greek characters who descended directly from Hercules.

  After mating with an equally dashing male, she carefully laid her eggs on the leaves of a local representative of the Citrus family called the Prickly Ash. Her action has guaranteed that her young will keep up the Herculean lineage.

  She, on the other hand, will spend the remaining days of her brief life flitting about from flower to flower. The deep purple blooms of the New York Ironweed and the Magenta tufts of the Bull Thistle (as seen above) seem to be the primary nectaring targets of this species. Eventually she will either run out of gas and fall to the ground among the dry leaves or get eaten.

  As a member of the Swallowtail family, she once sported a pair of hind wing tails.  You’ll note that these are now long gone on this gal. Her back wings have been roughly shortened. These tails were not worn off, however. They were bitten off by an unsuccessful predator – note the term “unsuccessful.”

  Although beautiful, beauty is not the main purpose for these swallowtail appendages. They are meant to be decoy heads (complete with a fake eye spot at the base) to convince hungry birds into biting at the wrong end of the body.  This ploy works at least 50% of the time and gives the victim a fair chance to escape with its real head intact.

  Our female has already cashed in on her life insurance policy by sacrificing her fake head tails. Only time will tell if she keeps her real head until that last chilly morning of natural life.

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