Orange Skipper

2010 March 13

In early July, Sam and I were out fooling around with the insect nets. When we got back to the house, I was cleaning out the debris, and picked up a green oblong that was about the size and shape of an immature quackgrass seed. But then, it wiggled, and I realized it was actually a little green pupa. So, I put it in an insect cage to see what would emerge from it. I unfortunately dawdled too long over getting a photograph, and missed photographing the whole pupa. Here’s the skin, though:

And here’s what came out of it:

This was evidently shortly after it emerged, so the wings were still a bit wrinkled and moist. It was pretty calm about the whole deal, and was content to perch on various people while I tried to get pictures, experimenting with indoor light versus somewhat diffused outdoor light (it was a bit cloudy that day)

The wings are pretty much solid orange, except for a thin dark margin on the trailing edge, and some black tracing over the wing veins. There was only one species in “Michigan Butterflies and Skippers” that was a very good match, so I’m pretty sure this is a European Skipper[1], Thymelicus lineola. Once again, it is not native to North America, they were accidentally introduced in London, Ontario sometime around 1910, and had reached Michigan by 1924. And now, there are evidently areas in eastern North America where not only are they the most common butterfly species, they often outnumber all other butterflies combined!

Its preferred food plants are grasses, which would explain why we picked it up in the tall grass in the backyard. They particularly like Timothy Grass[2], which isn’t native to North America either[3], but has become widespread because it is a popular component for hay mixes to feed to horses and cattle[4].

Skippers are considered a distinct group from other butterflies. They tend to be small, brown-to-orange in color, and fly quickly, “skipping” from flower to flower. The caterpillars have bulbous heads with a distinct neck, and usually roll up a piece of the leaf they are eating for shelter. They are therefore not to likely to be seen without unrolling leaves. And, obviously, the pupae of this species, at least, tend to get put onto grass stems. Where casual passers-by with an insect net can pick one up easily without realizing it.

[1] Or, in the UK, it is known as the Essex Skipper. It sounds like it is not just an invasive species in North America, it is also spreading its range in Europe and Asia.

[2] I’ve always had something of a sentimental attachment to Timothy Grass, since we share a first name. It is the first plant that I recall learning the name of.

[3] At this point, long-time readers who are keeping track of the number of non-native species I have posted here might be wondering, “Is *anything* native to Michigan?” The answer appears to be either “Some, but the really plentiful species are mostly invasives”, or “No, not really”, depending on how you define “Native”[5]. A mere 10,000 years ago, Michigan (and the Upper Peninsula in particular) was just coming out from under about a mile of ice, so there really wasn’t anything living here at the time. A lot of things promptly moved in, but most species here are the same species as are found further south, because that’s where their ancestors came from quite recently. As an example of where things stand: On the one hand, Lake Superior has about 80 species of fish, all but a few of which are also found in other lakes throughout the Midwest, and obviously colonized the lakes as the glaciers retreated. On the other hand, Lake Baikal in Siberia has about 1550 species and varieties of animals, 80% of which are found nowhere else. The difference is that Lake Baikal has been a lake for 25 million years, in contrast to the comparative eyeblink of Lake Superior’s 10,000 year existence.

[4] Which *also* are not native to North America. And, for the sake of completeness, the quackgrass that I mentioned up at the top of the page isn’t native, either. A clean sweep!

[5] Anyway, for purposes of this site I use “native” to mean everything that was already here in Michigan before there were any written records of what was here, and “non-native” to mean anything whose arrival was noted and documented at the time it happened. So, the cutoff is about 1823 or so, which is just about the time Thomas Say appeared on the scene, cataloging everything in sight.

8 Responses
  1. March 13, 2010

    When they come out of the pupa stage, they must be starving. I would bet that the only thing keeping their abdoments from looking sucked-in like prunes would be the chitin. It might be an interesting experiment to offer nectar to one such and then offer nectar to an adult caught out in the yard and see how much each drank. It would give you an idea of just how ravenous the little guys are when they emerge.

  2. kaysa permalink
    March 13, 2010

    Timothy hay – also a favorite of house rabbits!

  3. March 13, 2010

    Looking at those pictures, I came to a conclusion: Tim, someone in your family has really nice skin.

  4. March 14, 2010

    They probably are starving, yes. They come out distended with fluid, but a lot of that is then needed to pump up their wings. We let this one go on some flowers outside when we were done photographing it, but didn’t stop to check whether it immediately started eating.

    And, as Andy guessed, that wasn’t my skin in those pictures. A couple of them were taken on Sandy, and several were taken on Sam. I think the fingertip was Sam’s, so when you estimate the scale, think “4-year old girl’s fingertip”, not “adult man’s fingertip”.

  5. March 15, 2010

    I didn’t realize there were hydraulics in the wings. Are those veins or some other kind of capillary tubes in the wings?

  6. March 15, 2010

    The veins are basically hydraulics, yes. They don’t stay full of fluid, but they are pumped up to keep the wings stiff until they dry and harden. I think the fluid from the veins then evaporates, making the veins into essentially hollow tubular stiffeners. The finished wings are dead tissue, kind of like hair, so they don’t need to be supplied with nutrients once they have been unfurled.

  7. Lisa permalink
    March 27, 2016

    Thank you for this post. When I was a child growing up in Detroit, my father always took us on a family vacation in Onaway, Michigan and these were plentiful. It wasn’t hard to catch them and my father cautioned me to not rub the wings because they would not be able to fly. I was wondering if they still exist. I hope that pesticides have not killed them off.

  8. March 28, 2016

    Lisa: I’m glad you liked it. The little orange butterflies are certainly extremely plentiful up here, and I believe that they are still everywhere downstate, too. While pesticides are doubtless a problem for them, they can exist anywhere that grass grows, and there is enough untended grass even in urban areas that they can usually get along just fine.

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