Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Skipping 'Round the Garden

Not all butterflies are big and colorful. Some are small and need to be seen up close to be truly appreciated. Case in point: the Long-Tailed Skipper (Urbanus proteus). This diminutive butterfly is only a couple of inches in size, and seen in flight might appear to be a drab brown. But take a closer look - there's more than first meets the eye.

Long-Tailed Skippers lay eggs on a variety of plants in the pea and bean family (Fabacae). In the past, we've had Long-Tailed Skipper caterpillars on Hairypod Cowpea (Vigna luteola) and Creeping Beggarweed (Desmodium incanum). We've grown green beans and peas for them, too. This year, we have a new "volunteer" host plant for these skippers, Dixie Tick Trefoil (Desmodium tortuosum), a non-native that has naturalized in the southern US. A seed from this plant most likely hitched a ride home from the butterfly garden where I work, and has taken hold and grown... and grown... and grown. This plant is now well over six feet tall, and the leaves are kind of like condominiums for skipper caterpillars.

Skippers are leaf-rolling caterpillars. They use silk to pull the leaves around them to protect them while they eat. The leaves of D. tortuosum are soft and textured in a way that actually makes them stick to each other very easily, rather like Velcro. Perhaps this helps the caterpillars with the rolling?

Long-Tailed Skippers lay their eggs in stacks several high. We managed to catch this one in the act of ovipositing the other day - if you click the picture to enlarge it and look very closely, you can see the eggs she's already laid on the leaf at the end of her abdomen.

The light wasn't great, but we didn't want to disturb her, obviously. We did flip over the leaf and get a better shot of the eggs themselves when she was done.

Long-Tailed Skipper caterpillars have fun little heads, shaped almost like the peas and beans from their host plants. This caterpillar looks similar to other skipper caterpillars, like the Dorantes Skipper, but is easy to distinguish due to its bright orange hind end.

When ready to pupate, the caterpillar rolls itself up one final time for a safe place to transform into chrysalis. The chrysalis of the Long-Tailed Skipper is coated in a powdery substance that is a actually wax (click here to see a picture). After a couple of weeks, they emerge as butterflies to begin the process again.

Big or small, the butterfly and its life process is fascinating. We're so glad to have such a wide variety of species in all parts of their life cycle here in My Florida Backyard!


  1. Fascinating! Thanks for the information. Great pix!

  2. Great pics. I love all the butterflies in my yard. As I write this, I have a cloudless sulphur laying eggs on my cassia.