Thursday, May 7, 2015

A Butterfly Flew By Our Window - Or More Unschooling Science

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.

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.
The butterfly that flew by our window yesterday, had pale crescents and black antennae clubs.

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.


Ticia said...

Huh, I have to admit that kind of science drives me nuts because I don't have the right guides or where to find it, so I always admire and enjoy your posts explaining these things.

Phyllis said...

I love your butterfly studies. I am so bad at identification, but you make it seem so easy and fun!

MaryAnne said...

I am not very good at identifying animals using guides, but it is pretty exciting when we succeed in figuring out the species of an animal we find - usually birds, here.

Danielle said...

I was thinking a while back that there doesn't seem to be as many butterflies now as there were when I was a kid. Or maybe I just noticed them more then.

Phyllis said...

Happy Mother's Day. I have a little gift for you over at my blog.