Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

May 2, 2010

Faded Glory

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:59 pm

Back in early April the male Mourning Cloak patrolling the trail was a sight to behold. He was a deep purple beauty fresh out of hibernation (see above). This sassy fellow let no one pass through his territory without investigation or confrontation. He had picked a sunny portion of the trail where the mid-morning sun best captured his deep colors and bright trim. The males of his species were repelled and the females were duly courted. Human passersby were given warning flybys – as if to say “this place is mine but you are granted a temporary pass.”

Three weeks later this male was still vigorously manning his station, but showing the wear of duty.  Mourning Cloaks are members of a group of butterflies known as the anglewings. The tattered appearance of the wings is by natural design and not by accident. There is no better sight than a crisp-winged Cloak in early spring uniform (see above). As the season wears on, however, that sculptured tattering becomes real tattering and the wing fabric becomes rife with holes. By seasons end – and by that I mean late April/early May – the once grand purple has faded to brown and the yellow trim to sepia (see below and here).

This butterfly has certainly earned his appearance. Cloaks have one of the longest life spans among all North America butterflies. They are hatched as larvae in late spring, emerge in late summer, overwinter as adults, and complete their cycle the following spring. This means that a typical individual can expect to live 10 or 11 months. In human years you could say that is around 90 (in dog years, why, we are looking at around 105 ½ give or take!).Their last few months of life are among the most active of their career. They do not go into retirement, but instead beat up against the pane of life until they are broken, bald, and dead. Unlike other butterflies that normally represent temporary delicacy and tender beauty, the Cloak is a savvy old timer who would spit tobacco if it could (if it had jaws, that is).

I honor this veteran of trail battles but I will not mourn his passing, even though it is technically a Mourning Cloak. There is a problem with this name, you see. The name is an American one – given to the representatives of this worldwide species that happen to live here. You will read, ad nauseum, how it refers to the “traditional purple cloaks worn by mourners.” The only thing wrong with this is that there appears to be no such thing!  Black has long been the color of 18th/19th century mourning practices in these parts. Purple trim was allowed for light mourning after the required period, but complete purple robes were not. The only explanation I can find is a reference to the royal purple robes mockingly placed on Christ before he was crucified. In church history, purple robes still represent the symbolic mourning of Christ prior to Easter.

I can only hope, by bringing this up, that we can lay to rest a long, and oft repeated fallacy, about the name “Mourning Cloak”. In Europe, this butterfly is strictly called the “Camberwell Beauty” or the “Grand Surprise.”  These were the names associated with it when the species was first officially described in 1758. It is still a rare surprise every time it shows up in England – thus the second name. As you might have guessed, it was an early surprise appearance along Cold Arbour Lane in Camberwell, England which resulted in the original name.

Fortunately, the sight of one of these ragged Cloaks – or Beauties, Surprises, or however you wish to call them – is not a rare American event. Because these creatures live so long, maybe it is right to call them equally by all three names.

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