Fall’s Final Flutterings

Even in December, an assortment of butterflies graces the Texas landscape, taking advantage of our relative warmth and lingering nectar sources.

The Queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus) shown above can be distinguished from Monarchs and Viceroys by the white spots on its hindwings and darker color. I recently found a dozen of these beauties flocking around the remnants of Gregg’s mistflower (Conoclinium greggii ) in a Kerrville garden.

On the other hand, this Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) found a congenial resting spot alongside the Willow City Loop in Gillespie County. Its family, the Nymphalidae, contains butterflies called ‘brushfooted,’ due to the reduced size of their front legs. Seventy-three species of this largest butterfly family are found in Texas, including fritillaries, checker spots, crescents, American Painted Ladies, and Red Admirals.

At the Lost Maples State Natural Area, I got my first look at a somewhat amusing butterfly known as the American Snout (Libytheana carinenta).There’s no question how its name arose. The pronounced elongation of its mouth parts look very much like a snout; they remind me of an anteater.

The Snout’s larvae, pupae, and adults are quite dull, resembling partially opened leaves. When adults rest on twigs with their wings folded and their antennae and snout aligned toward the twig, they often resemble a dead leaf.

Hackberry trees serve as hosts for the American Snout; adults feed on a wide variety of flowers, and often can be found sipping water and minerals from mud.

American Snouts do migrate, but not in a traditional north to south direction. Instead, they move locally among patches of suitable habitat, particularly after rains produce fresh hackberry leaves. A 1976 study discovered the butterflies moving in three different directions east of I-35, with one flight reversing directions between morning and afternoon. Their migrations are fascinating; this article provides more complete details.


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You Can Look, But You’d Better Not Touch

It may appear cute, fuzzy, and pettable, but this pile of fluff attached to a grass blade at the Sandylands Sanctuary in East Texas is best avoided. A larval stage of the Black-Waved Flannel Moth (Megalopyge crispata), its hollow hairs contain toxins designed to protect the caterpillar from predators.

When other creatures — including humans — brush against the hairs, they break away and release the toxin, producing a painful rash or sting. Depending on the species and a person’s sensitivity, swelling and inflammation, numbness, or even fever and nausea might result.

The view from below


While younger Black-waved flannel moth larvae sport long, white wispy hairs, in their final larval stage they look very much like the best known stinging caterpillar in Texas: the Southern Flannel moth (Megalopyge opercularis). Commonly known as puss moths, or ‘asps,’ they can be abundant in live oak,  pecan, elm, and hackberry trees, as well as in yaupon and other shrubs.

Occasionally, they’ll drop from the trees onto cars or pavement below. When I found one on my car yesterday, it served as a timely reminder that their season has arrived.

The also-cute-but-dangerous Texas asp

Venomous hairs hidden beneath the silky outer hairs of the asp can deliver a sting even more painful than that of the Black-Waved flannel moth. Intense, throbbing pain can develop immediately upon contact, and other symptoms can include headaches, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes shock or respiratory stress. After my own first (and only) encounter with one of these critters, it took a day for the pain to subside, and several days for the red marks to disappear.

First aid advice for these caterpillar stings includes ice packs, baking soda, and the use of adhesive tape to pull broken spines out of the skin, but prevention — learning to recognize and avoid these caterpillars — beats every cure in the book. 


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A Salty Old Girl

  Female Seaside Dragonlet on  Marsh Bristlegrass ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

The Seaside Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax berenice) spends most of its time perched atop salt marsh plants; here, one rests on a stem of marsh bristlegrass (Setaria parviflora).

Perhaps ‘saltmarsh dragonlet’ would be a better name, since they’re often the only dragonfly in the marshes. Other dragonflies appear in coastal habitats, hunting insects over dunes and wetlands, but no other species is as tied to the coast as the dragonlet; they rarely appear inland, and are considered to be our only marine dragonfly.

The primary reason is their adaptation to salt. Like all dragonfly larvae, seaside dragonlet nymphs are aquatic, but their ability to regulate the concentration of salt within their bodies allows them to thrive in saltwater; researchers have found them tolerating water as much as three times the salinity of the ocean. In salt marshes, the seaside dragonlet often is the only medium-sized dragonfly — about an inch and a half long — that’s encountered.

Salt marshes are insect-rich, so dragonlets can afford to be a little lazy. They do less flying and more waiting than many species: launching themselves out to capture passing prey before returning to their perch.

Adult males are deep blue or black, with clear or nearly-clear wings; females show varying amounts of yellow atop the abdomen, and elaborate patterns of black-and-yellow striping on the sides of the thorax. As accomodating as they are attractive, they make fine subjects for a photographer.


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