Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 14, 2011

A Silver Spotted Sand Sipper

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:08 pm

I nearly stepped on it. The hairy brown creature visually melted into the sandy parking lot upon which it sat. Only the bright underwing markings called the stationary Silver-spotted Skipper my attention and saved it from a flattening experience. Normally these active butterflies dart off at the slightest movement – they skip about as if charged with an excess of morning espressos (thus the family name). It was unusual, therefore, that this fellow seemed so utterly focused that a lumbering giant did not disturb it. Either it was sick, drunk, or texting.  It was drunk…sorta.

You see, this butterfly was “puddling” – a male dominated activity which involves sucking up minerals and salts from the soil or mud (similar to football). So, you could say that it was drunk on mineral water. The sand was moist from recent showers and apparently offered an irresistible brew of salt and other soil leached minerals. During the mating season, male butterflies use this extra intake to help boost their virility. This late in the season, butterfly virility is misplaced. Silver-spotted skippers over-winter as pupae and the adults die off at summer’s end. Perhaps our hairy little fellow was planning on going out in a blaze of glory?

All guesswork aside, this puddling incident allowed me a chance to get a good close look at this, Michigan’s largest skipper. As a group, skippers are separated from the so-called “true” butterflies because of their moth-like characteristics. For starters, they have chunky bodies which are heavily coated with layer of setae (not hair) and relatively small wings. They flitter about nervously and never pause to glide like their wide-winged relatives. In some circles they are referred to as being “the least developed of the butterflies” as if they are Neanderthals in a world of sapiens.  They are not primitive, however – this design has fostered hundreds of U.S. species.

Other obvious skipper features are the hooked antennae and the large widely spaced eyes. The antennae are clubbed in typical butterfly fashion, but they have a distinct hook at the end unlike any other type of butterfly. The large eyes? Well they seem to impart a slightly more sophisticated look than seen on the mug of a Cabbage White butterfly or one of the other “more developed” butterflies.  And having a bigger head must mean something as well. I’m not sure what, but perhaps Silver-spotted Skippers are frustrated mathematicians stuck inside brutish hairy bodies.

I could not get over the density of the body “fur” on this individual (see above and detail here). Ignoring the scale of the photo (the skipper had a wingspan of around 2 inches) the creature looked like a winged muskrat. I’m sure that drinking too much mineral water on my part would assist my perception of flying muskrats. I know that licking sand would probably produce a similar result. A very un-muskratlike stripe pattern is apparent on the back if you examine it closely.

Finally, I leave you with the image of the tongue. It is a flexible hollow instrument through which the skipper sucks up nectar and/or mineral water with equal dexterity. Notice how the skipper holds it at 90 degree angle as if it were a bendy straw. In a way it is an ultimate bendy straw with flex points at every segment.

I left the puddling skipper to his own thoughts. I can only guess how he will spend his waning days, but I’m sure he won’t skip the good parts.

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