Savory butterfly snack

I’m not much of a winter hiker, so during snowy months I get a nature fix from a different source: working on my growing collection of banner images. With January’s additions, the collection numbers more than 180, and you can view the whole gallery here.

At some point I want to write a blog post about the fun yet often tricky process of cropping photos into the strange shape of 596 by 175 pixels, but today I’m focusing on one image only:

butterflyondogpooGoshawkRidge061010This is a Weidemeyer’s admiral butterfly (Limenitis weidemeyerii), photographed on the Goshawk Ridge Trail in June 2010. This butterfly was perched only a short ways up the fire road, which was great because that day I was recovering from a bad sprain and couldn’t hobble far.

He caught my eye because he was sitting where I didn’t expect: on a drying piece of dog doo in the middle of the trail. Every time I see this photo it makes me chuckle because without looking closely at the photo, one would never notice what the butterfly is perched on.

Actually, there is a second joke in the photo: the Weidemeyer’s admiral has company on the dog doo, a smaller, orange-brown butterfly, probably a fritillary, hidden in the shadow of the larger butterfly’s wingspan. Together, the butterflies make a combined shadow on the ground that echoes the coloring on the Weidemeyer’s admiral wings—but again, without stopping to notice, one might not register that the shadow on the stones is made by two butterflies, one whose wings are open, the other’s closed.

Spotting this pair was the first time I noticed that butterflies like to hang out on dog doo. So of course it raised tons of questions: Why dog doo? What are the butterflies getting from it?

I put my questions to the experts, Jan Chu and Steve Jones, coauthors of the marvelous guidebook, Butterflies of the Colorado Front Range. They agreed: these butterflies are male. They are soaking up nutrients from the dog doo.

What kind of nutrients? Jan explained: during mating season male butterflies snack on dung to pick up minerals and proteins, which then go into forming the spermatophore, a capsule that encases each sperm. While mating, the male passes these packages of sperm and nutrients along to the female.

The day I photographed these butterflies was also the first time I’d seen a Weidemeyer’s admiral, one of the special butterfly residents of the Rocky Mountain region stretching from southern Alberta down to southern New Mexico and Arizona. They live in stream areas, where females lay their eggs on the undersides of willow leaves, sometimes also cottonwood or aspen. One fun fact about these butterflies: caterpillars may overwinter during their third stage of transformation, curling up in a tiny white sac that hangs from the bottom of a leaf and looks like a bird dropping, thus discouraging predators. The caterpillar simply hibernates during its third stage, taking a several-month-long wintry pause in its development.

Many butterflies, it turns out, prefer dung or carrion to flower nectar; for some beautiful close-up photos of butterflies on dung, see this blogger from Vancouver. For ideas on attracting dung-loving butterflies to your yard—without the dung—see this page. You can try setting out a banana peel or a bunch of compost made with cow manure. Apparently many types of rot keep these butterflies happy.

Finally, a special shout-out to my web developer, my own sweetheart, Timothy Falb, who not only put together the page of banner images but also devised a clever automated system that prevents my site from bogging down with images. Instead of loading all 180 images at once, the system randomly picks 15 at a time and changes those 15 each time the page is refreshed. (Tim programmed this whole site, for which I am grateful!)

Tim’s innovation means that I can add banner images ad infinitum. Or until winter ends. Whichever comes first.

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6 Responses to Savory butterfly snack

  1. Sally Glick says:February 6, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    Love the way the shadow echoes the pattern on the admiral’s wings, which I never would have noticed without your aid. The smaller butterfly is totally lost in the dark on my small image.
    And I’m soaking in the banner images. I’ve been meaning to do a retrospective to get something other than white on my blog too, but so far other projects keep intervening.At the rate this winter is going, there will be plenty of time!

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:February 6, 2014 at 3:07 pm

      Are you having another blizzard, Sally? Snow days are great for puttering with blogs. Thanks for dropping by!

  2. Dave Sutherland says:February 6, 2014 at 9:48 pm

    One of my fav butterflies! Once, in Honduras, I watched a butterfly get drunk off the fermented juice of a mango rotting on the ground. When I got too close, the butterfly took off and tried to get away, flying smack! into the tree trunk.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:February 7, 2014 at 11:17 am

      Until I saw this one, I’d never noticed that butterflies love rotting stuff. I love your story, Dave!

  3. Fascinating that butterflies get nutrients from dung. There’s probably some lesson that can be learned there, like the lotus flower emerging from the mud.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:February 10, 2014 at 5:44 pm

      Kathy, I suspect that nutritionally it’s similar to our liking fermented foods, and getting different nutrients from them than from fresh foods. But I’d love to hear more details from butterfly experts. And you’re so right, it takes the rot to make rich flowers.