Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

May 26, 2010

The Master of Dung Hill

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:48 am

Butterflies have become symbols of delicacy and freedom over the years. In our world of fiction and philosophy there is nothing more dainty and beautiful than a free-flying butterfly bouncing from flower to flower on a bright summer day. Indeed, there are many butterflies that fit this ideal. I watched dozens of brightly patterned Pearly Crescent butterflies nectaring at crisp yellow dandelions the other day and was captivated by the sight. I was, in fact, nearly lured into spouting a bit of on-the-spot poetry about free spirits drinking up the sweet nectar of life etc. etc. Fortunately, I resisted the urge. This perception is, of course, mostly a human fabrication. Butterflies are no more carefree or delicate than the next wild bum in the field. They are pretty, but that only goes so far.

These gaily colored insects are far more interesting than their flighty reputation might imply. I present to you, as an example, two other butterflies that I encountered on the very same walk along with the Pearly Crescents: Red Admirals & Viceroys. The Admirals were sipping fermented ale and the viceroys were engaging in coprophagy (I’ll explain that in a moment). Many butterfly species feed on things other than nectar – especially early in the field flowering season. It is not uncommon to find these critters feeding on sap, lapping up aphid honeydew, sucking on carrion, or dining on dung and decaying fungi. This does not present a pretty picture for the camera.

The Red Admirals (the same “Admirables” I introduced to you a few blogs ago) were gathering at a willow shrub to suck away at the sap oozing from various bark wounds. The gang of Admirals gathered at this bubbly feast were a tough looking bunch. None of them were one-eyed as far as I could tell, but many were ragged from previous encounters with flycatchers (see above). I’m sure some were missing a few limbs.  These gents were shoving their fellow admirals aside as they jockeyed for position at the sap bar.

The sap was baking in the hot morning sun and it was likely turning to ale, so this scene had all the makings of a drunken bunch of sailors (see above and here). The fact that the location was along a watery marsh side contributed to the nautical nature of the scene. Since butterflies do not have jaws, they are required to suck up the liquid through their long hollow proboscis. One by one they approached the drip and uncurled their long tongue into the brew.

In this case, the Admirals were seeking the high sugar content in the sap in order to keep their energy up. Further down the trail, on a boardwalk overlooking the marsh, three Viceroys were enjoying a meal of raccoon dung. They were seeking minerals and other such nutrients found in the poo. These monarch look-alikes were freshly emerged from their chrysalis. Having overwintered as larvae, they would have spent the first few weeks of this spring eating willow leaves before pupating. Leaf diets are low in sodium and nitrogen, so the first urge of the adult is to make up that deficit. Carnivore dung is especially high in sodium and nitrogenous wastes, so they head for the good crap.

Like the Admirals, the viceroys have straws for mouths and are required to exploit moist food sources. These droppings consisted almost entirely of crayfish remains – claws, legs, fragments of hard shell (proving that there still are wild raccoons out there that eat natural food!). Although the poo was relatively dry and several days old, the morning dew had re-hydrated some of it and provided some liquid offerings.

The eating of poo, by the way, is called Coprophagy. Such a thing is frowned upon in polite society, but among butterflies there are no such taboos. Lepidopterists have long known that the best way to attract butterflies is to……..well, I will leave that one alone. Given this fact, the drunken Red Admirals appear to be downright acceptable. Splash some water in their face and let ‘em sober up a bit and they will be very presentable in public.

We could put this Viceroy vice into a better light, I suppose. Let’s just say that they are known to enjoy seafood on occasion. Crayfish are a delicacy even when pre-processed.


  1. “Carnivore dung is especially high in sodium and nitrogenous wastes, so they head for the good crap.”

    I love this line!

    You have a very well written, accessible style. Thanks! Looking forward to reading more.

    Comment by Brett — May 27, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

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