Thursday, September 5, 2013

Nymphalis Antiopa

In what had been a very, very active butterfly spring and summer—we raised 13 Black Swallowtails and have been entertaining a small tribe of Cabbage Whites—late summer, now moving toward autumn in lengthening strides, has left our little eden here bereft of new species. Until yesterday. A very large and virtually black butterfly landed on one of our tomato plants, staying in the shade of its leaves. We watched it for quite a time, just resting. Then I got my camera and tried to make a stealth-approach, but the creature sensed my coming and betook itself, next, to the roof of our sunroom to find a new perch in a coil of cable wiring at is edge. We managed to get a look at it, finally, from a stairway window—from a distance of about three feet. But then, maneuvering my camera to take a shot, I triggered its flight response. No. I never managed to take a picture.

Fortunately I had had a close look. And today, therefore, I was able to identify it as a Mourning Cloak, Nymphalis antiopa. The picture I am showing here is taken from Wikipedia’s article on this species, and I chose the image that most closely resembles our own. Mourning Cloak is a particularly large butterfly—and the females are markedly larger than the males. For this reason we’re pretty sure that we’d encountered a lady, furthermore rather an old one. Always a pleasure to say Hello to yet another rarely seen species—but, I am told, quite common in North America.

The name is interesting. The Brits call this butterfly Camberwell Beauty, but in Germanic languages the literal meaning of Mourning Cloak is used: in German, Trauermantel; in Swedish, Sorgmantel. The antiope of the Latin name harks back to Antiopa, a Greek figure with a dramatic history. Tragedy surrounded her, so much so that Pacuvius, a renowned Roman tragedian (he died in 130 BC), wrote a tragedy about her. Mourning becomes Nymphalis…

Added Later: Herewith some additional interesting facts about the Mourning Cloak. It belongs to the Superfamily Papilionoidea, the Family Nymphalidae, also called four-footed. In the American context it is the longest-lived species of butterfly with a life of 10-11 months. It is a tree-dwelling butterfly (willows, elms, cottonwood, birch), likes to feed on tree sap and rotting fruit, and its coloration makes it look like tree-bark. It’s also rather big, with a wingspan of 2.25 to 4-inch wing span. They extend form lower Canada to northern Mexico, do a lot of travelling in the Summer months, rest in the fall, overwinter, and then breed in the Spring.

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