Yesterday, a butterfly flew by our window. We set off with our butterfly net to catch it, in hopes of making an identification. Science is one of the subjects we pretty well unschool completely. Much of what we learn is prompted by a desire to find out more about the world we see around us, day to day.
According to the North American Butterfly Association there are approximately 20,000 species of butterflies in the world.
Of those, about 575 species live in the lower 48 states of the United States.
The Montana Field Guide lists around 205 species in the state.
So far this spring, we've spotted - 2.
It's debated a little, but basically, whether you're looking worldwide, or locally, all of the butterfly species can be divided up into 6 different families.
- Hesperiidae, or Sippers - named for their quick, darting flight habits (per Wikipedia)
- Lycaenidae, or Gossamerwing/Hairsteaks - small and bright, often with a metallic gloss.
- Nymphalidae, or Brush-footed - most have a reduce pair of forelegs they do not walk on, giving them the appearance of having only four legs.
- Papilionidae, or Swallowtail - large (includes the world's largest) and colorful, often with a forked appearance to their hindwings.
- Pieridae, or Oranges, Whites, and Sulphurs - most are white, yellow, or orange, often with black spots.
- Riodinidae, or Metalmarks - named for the small, metallic spots commonly found on their wings.
The butterfly that flew by our window yesterday, appeared to have only four legs...
...placing it in the Brush-footed family.
Kaufman's Butterflies of North America, Field Guide divides the Brush-footed family into 4 additional sub-families for easy identification.
- Longwings and Fritillaries - found mostly in the southern most states.
- Crescents and Checkerspots - mostly small, low flying butterflies with a crescent or checkered pattern on their wings, as their name suggests.
- Typical Brush-foots - a catchall category, containing many marked by a flight action of several fast flaps followed by a glide.
- Satyrs - mostly shades of brown, with bright wing spots, and a floppy flight.
The butterfly that flew by our window was small (about 1.5'' across) and had a crescent pattern on it's wings (see the arrow below).
The Montana Field Guide lists 6 Crescents from the Brush-footed family living in the state.
- Field Crescent - with blackish crescents and black antennae clubs.
- Mylitta Crescent - with orange crescents and orange antennae clubs.
- Northern Crescent - dark black and bright orange, with almost no crescents showing, and orange antennae clubs.
- Pale Crescent - slightly larger, with orange antennae clubs, and pale crescents.
- Pearl Crescent - very common, orange antennae clubs.
- Tawney Crescent - very similar in appearance to the Field and Pearl Crescents - antennae clubs are black.
It could be a Tawny Crescent, but then all of these butterflies are polymorphic (meaning they can appear differently depending on sex, or other factors) and the in the Black Hills (not too terribly far away) a scientific study has shown hybridization (mixing) between this species and its close relatives - making identification tricky.
One of the things I really like about this type of science project is that there are no answers for us to turn to at the back of the book.
We could be right. We could be wrong. All we can do is make an educated guess, and keep our eyes open for additional observations to guide us along the way.
Right or wrong, we know more about butterflies (scientific classification, local plants, Latin word roots, and available field guides) today, than we did yesterday.