Greetings from Butterflies & Blooms! I have great news for my fellow Lepidoptera enthusiasts! We have a very interesting new species in the exhibition. Meet Caligo atreus, also known as the yellow-edged owl, or our favorite: the magnificent owl.
This blue beauty is in the genus known as the owl butterflies (Caligo). They’re called owl butterflies because the markings on the undersides of their wings have large black eyespots that resemble the eyes of an owl. (You will typically see the eyespots when the butterflies’ wings are closed.) This is thought to help them ward off predators. Caligo translates to “darkness,” which corresponds to the fact that they prefer to fly in the early morning before their predators are out and about. They are native to the tropical forests of Central and South America, and are among the world’s largest butterflies!
We also have a few other species in the owl genus, including the giant owl and the forest owl. However, the magnificent owl is aptly named, as it is much more colorful than its peers—its dorsal side has deep blue striping on the top part of the wing and bright yellow on the bottom half of the wing. During most of the day, you can find them hanging out on the fruit trays or resting in the shade, but if you come early, you’ll have a good chance of catching these graceful giants dancing around the exhibition, showing off their beautiful coloration.
The king cracker (Hamadryas amphinome) is our featured butterfly this week.
The king cracker is part of a larger group of butterflies called crackers because of the sound males make with their wings when they fly. You guessed it, they make a cracking sound! Only males can make the sound, but both males and females can detect it. We still don’t know why they make a cracking noise; perhaps it has to do with mating, or maybe to deter a potential predator. Regardless, it is fun to hear!
The king cracker is native to Mexico and Peru, but has been spotted in the southern United States as well. It has a very unique color pattern that is truly remarkable to see. On the top of its wings is a stunning blue and white calico pattern. Underneath is a brilliant brick-colored patch that gives the butterfly its other common name, red cracker.
The king cracker is a master of disguise. The mottled blue and white tones allow it to blend easily into the bark on trees. Tree trunks are a favorite resting spot for king crackers and they, unlike most butterflies, rest with their wings open; ready to take flight at any moment. Even the the pupae are disguised to look like withered leaves.
Another interesting fact about the king cracker is that it feeds mainly on decomposing fruit and not nectar. It is easy to spot a king cracker grabbing a quick bite on any of our four feeding dishes. So come on out to the Butterflies & Blooms exhibition and see if you can see or hear one today!
The pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor) is our featured butterfly this week. This beauty can be found in the southern half of the United States all the way south to Mexico. Occasionally it can even be found further north. In Mexico, pipevines can be found all year round.
Like many butterflies, the pipevine swallowtail warns potential predators with its bright colors that it is inedible. Caterpillars feed on the toxic leaves of Aristolochia species and become unpalatable, staying that way through their metamorphosis. Females even pass the toxins along to eggs, which then also become protected.
Another beautiful native, the spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) mimics the pipevine swallowtail as a form of defense—the pipevine’s bad taste and toxic makeup are enviable traits in a butterfly! Though not toxic itself, the spicebush’s convincing disguise fools predators into thinking twice before snacking.
Like many other butterflies, the pipevine swallowtail gets its nutrients from “puddling,” in which a group of butterflies gathers at one location, such as a shallow puddle or a mud pile, and drinks any available liquid. This is a common way to supplement their primary diet of nectar with much needed salts and minerals.
This beautiful butterfly regularly visits our coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) in the Butterflies & Blooms exhibition, and can easily be spotted. Make sure to check them out on your next trip to the Garden!
A longtime favorite of staff and visitors alike, the zebra longwing (Heliconius charitonius) is our featured butterfly this week. This graceful Lepidoptera is native from South America to South Texas and Florida, and occasionally an immigrant can be found as far north as Nebraska! The zebra longwing is the state butterfly of Florida.
One very interesting thing about these beauties is that they roost communally in groups of 25-30 butterflies. In our exhibit they tend to use the same branch night after night and can be seen in the morning all resting together. These friendly butterflies even eat together, bask together (open their wings to gain warmth from the sun), and take flying trips together around the house.
The zebra longwing is extremely calm and easy to approach, so it’s a super fun addition to our butterfly family. You’re sure to see some on your next visit to Butterflies & Blooms.
A stunning butterfly from western Africa, the flame-bordered charaxes (Charaxes protoclea) is well-named: it definitely looks aflame in bright sunlight! Seen from above, the lower central portions of the female’s wings are white-hot; the wingtips display a range of yellow-to-orange spots, and a strip of brilliant orange frames each wing. (The males’ wings are a muted brownish-black, but also bordered in fiery orange.)
From below, charaxes are much more toned down, colored in muted browns and grays with a single dark eye spot. Male butterflies are a subtle maroon-brown in color, while females are light tan, with a single wide, white stripe midwing. The different coloring on the wing patterns of each sex is known as sexual dimorphism, and is fairly common in butterflies (see our mocker swallowtail post for another kind of dimorphism).