Sunday, September 14, 2008

Red admirals

Rare are the occasions when I flip through a fieldguide to a range map that encompasses the entire United States as a present-day range. Such was the case earlier this week when I wanted to learn more about the frequent sitings of red admiral butterflies (Vanessa atalanta) that were landing on us as we ate our cheese and almonds in Shannon County. Members of the Nymphalidae family, red admirals live not only throughout North America in huge numbers, but in Europe, Asia, North Africa, the Azores and even occur, however rarely, in Iceland.

Large numbers of red admirals fly to southern Texas in early fall to spend the winter months in warmer temperatures. Some stay within their breeding range throughout the winter, hibernating during colder periods but emerging like mourning cloaks on those warm winter days that sneak up on us in the Ozarks. They feed primarily on sap, rotting fruit, bird droppings and nectar. Caterpillars of the red admiral feed on members of the genus Urtica, the genus of nettles: rangy, clustering plants that are covered in toxic hairs which cause great irritation to anyone wearing shorts in riparian areas or other moist woods. Common plants in southeast Missouri, the entire understory was dominated by nettles and poison ivy. Stomping through riparian areas of the Current River, I see no shortage of nettles in the Ozarks, either. Red admirals dominated the afternoon butterfly counts in both places.

According to the latest edition of Audubon, the common red admiral habit of landing on people may have caused a little discomfort in 19th century Russia:
...prolific flights over Russia in 1881 gave the insect a reputation as a prognosticator of doom because they coincided with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Look closely at the markings on the underside of a perched red admiral's hind wing and you may be able to read '1881.'

A butterfly as an indicator of impending doom? Geepers. These pretty nymphalids who feed on goldenrods, moldy wild plums, heron droppings and asters in the fall are pretty common in Missouri, a line that doesn't apply to most creatures that depend on our natural lands for sustenance. And as a girl who normally doesn't have the patience to photograph things that move, I genuinely appreciated the red admiral's frequent landings on my colleague's hand as he tried to eat an apple. The ever close viewing, however, did not afford the chance to see "1881" in the hindwing scales.

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