Fooled by a butterfly wanna-be

While visiting my brother recently in northwestern Wisconsin, I spotted an unusual butterfly in the driveway. I followed the small, mostly black and white butterfly around for five minutes as it seemed to not want to land. Finally it did, with wings wide open, so I studied it and determined it was a species I’d never seen before. But that’s not that unusual for me; there are many more species in northwest Wisconsin than in northwest Illinois, and some in my brother’s vicinity are not on my life list. To my dismay, I hadn’t brought the butterfly identification book with me, so I had no idea what the little bugger was.

Two days after returning home to Rockford, I saw the same butterfly in the yard. The next day I saw three more in the yard and four at Anderson Gardens. I believe I know all the butterflies in our area, so who in the heck are they? Was it a colonizer from the west or north? Or a butterfly expanding its range? “Yes, that’s it, it’s from the north. I saw it up there first,” I thought to myself. Then I began to check a butterfly book. I found nothing in the book that looked like the mystery butterfly until I looked in the skipper section. There are nearly 300 species of skippers in North America with the majority being tropical living in south Texas.

Skippers are kind of strange-looking butterflies. They have stout bodies with big eyes and short antennae. Their flight is often fast with very fast wing movement that blurs the wings in appearance. But this new one doesn’t fly like that. Most skippers are small to medium, and most are colored in orange, brown, black, white and gray, but a few are iridescent. The strange butterfly I was seeing sat with its wings open, where most skippers sit with their strange triangular-shaped wings closed except when they’re sunning themselves. Then I thought I’d found it in the book. It was a species native to our area, but it was a species I’d never seen, so I didn’t recognize it. The name given to the mystery organism was the common checkered skipper. I was able to collect one soon after, and upon further, closer review, found it to look like an Erichson’s skipper. Erichson’s, like the common checkered, is an open-winged skipper; that is, they sit with wings open even when not sunning. Erichson’s skipper, though, is uncommon, even in its own region, which is not northern Illinois but the extreme American Southwest down into Mexico, Central America and South America through Argentina. This didn’t add up, so I called the only real butterfly expert I know, Uncle Alan Branhagen. Alan told me to send the specimen in the mail, which I promptly did.

Several days later, an e-mail from Uncle Alan read, “The insect you sent me is a white-banded tooth carpet (Epirrhoe alternata) which is a diurnal moth that is way cool. Its caterpillars’ food plants are bedstraws. The moth inhabits rich woods.” It sure had me fooled; give Ma Nature the curve ball of the month award.

The white-banded tooth carpet moth is evolving into a butterfly. Though its wings are hitched together forewing to hindwing, which is a moth characteristic, two key factors make it more butterfly-like. One is its thinner antennae, and the other is that it’s active by day.

So don’t let Ma Nature fool you; keep in touch with your Lepidoptera-knowledgeable friends. I always thought evolving was stepping up a notch, an improvement. Does that mean butterflies are better than moths? Butterflies and moths are successful, so I believe they are equal. Are some butterflies evolving into moths? If there are butterflies evolving into moths, some would label that as devolution.

Those people would say, “Hey, are they not moths? Then they are Devo.”

Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in the environment and disability issues. He has an associate’s degree in science and a bachelor’s in fine arts. Rod is a member of the Audubon Society, the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and Rockford Amateur Astronomers, Inc.

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