Saturday, December 7, 2013

Globetrotting Skippers

Fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus). © Beatriz Moisset
 You probably thought I was running out of migratory butterflies after my last two posts. Not quite, there are more. But now I want to turn to skippers and talk about two species that also deserve the name of globetrotters.

Skippers are related to butterflies and often they are called by that name. The clearest difference between the two is that the end of a skipper's antennae ends in a hook, while that of a butterfly ends in a knob. Most are not as colorful as butterflies, they skip along when flying, hence their name.

Butterflies, skippers and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera, which literally means "scaly wings." You can tell them apart from all other insects by this feature. Perhaps, in a future post I will deal with migratory moths. Yes, there are some of those, too. In fact, a few perform amazing trekking feats.

As I mentioned, we know very little about the itineraries and distances covered by migratory butterflies, other than monarchs. We know even less about skippers. The only fact we are certain of about the ones I want to discuss today –the fiery skipper and the long-tailed skipper– is that they travel long distances, not just locally.

Fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus) is one of the so called grass skippers because its caterpillar feeds on grasses. It has a bright orange color. It lives in temperate and tropical areas and can be found from North America to Brazil and Argentina. Let me clarify that this is its geographic distribution and it doesn't mean that it travels that far. The ones that live in South America are different populations. However, as I said before, it travels north in the spring from the southern states to northern areas. It is thought that many of those migrants don't make it back. Instead, they freeze and die when the weather gets cold.

Long-tailed skipper (Urbanus proteus). © Sean McCann. Bugguide
 The long-tailed skipper (Urbanus proteus) is unusual in two respects, each hind wing has a long projection that gives it its name, and its caterpillar feeds on members of the pea family. This latter characteristic doesn't endear it to farmers. The caterpillar is often called the bean leaf roller because it finds shelter by wrapping itself inside a leaf of this plant. It is just as widespread as the fiery skipper. Once again, it is not known if the ones that travel north or their progeny ever make it back to the South.

Years ago, it was thought that some of the travelers mentioned in previous articles failed to return south when the weather deteriorated perishing at the end of the season. Later on, additional observations showed that painted ladies, red admirals and a few others, do indeed return south in the fall.  I hope that, as we find out more about these two species, we learn that they too are capable of escaping the winter weather by migrating south in the fall.

Butterflies and Moths of North America (Range)
Long-tailed Skipper or Bean Leafroller (Distribution)
Migration: The Biology of Life on the Move (Urbanus proteus migration)

Globetrotting Butterflies
More Globetrotting Butterflies

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed seeing photos of skippers and reading your information. I've never seen the long tailed kind, but there are at least 2 kinds that I see numbers of each summer. I like seeing them around.