Thursday, August 14, 2008
The Case of the Mysterious Butterfly
How I discover the identity of a mysterious butterfly AND receive a message from a renowned butterfly expert
As I walked up the dusty trail to Lola Montez Lakes this summer behind my husband and boys, a bewitching black and chartreuse butterfly flew across my path. Its yellow spots left a dizzying streak in the air as it fluttered past me and alighted on a plant by the side of the trail. I had my camera out because I had been photographing fritillaries, so I knelt down and snapped a photo. It sat still for its portrait, wings obligingly open, so I snapped another photo before it flew off tipsily, dazzling me again with the vibrating dance of its wings. I looked forward to getting home and looking it up in my butterfly book at home.
Except, it wasn't in my book. And it wasn't on Art Shapiro's Butterfly Site, an in-depth study of butterfly population trends spanning more than 35 years of observations in the very region where I had been hiking. I was discouraged. I set aside my search as other matters pressed, but in the back of my head I wondered if somehow some strange butterfly from foreign lands had wandered over Donner Summit, a tourist in the mountains, like me. In my book, Professor Shapiro notes that butterfly population distribution is constantly changing, as human destroy habitat, climate changes, and butterflies adapt. In a brave moment, I wrote a short email to Professor Shapiro describing my butterfly and the location where I observed it, and asked him if he would like me to send him a photo of it.
Eventually I took up my search again, trolling through the massive Butterflies and Moths of North America site, but no luck. Using the butterfly ID quiz on Discover Life, I ended up with one butterfly that kinda sorta looked like mine. Or was it because it was past midnight and my eyes were getting bleary? I idly Googled this butterfly's latin name, hoping that perhaps my butterfly was a relative. A black and white drawing from a 1921 handbook on insects in Yosemite appeared on my screen. There, amidst some other familiar butterflies, was my mysterious butterfly. It was not a butterfly at all. It was a MOTH! Its common name, "wild forget-me-not moth" sounded romantic and Victorian to me, like something out of a gothic novel.
In the sober morning I learned that Gnophaela latipennis is a quite common Sierra day-flying moth. (Most moths fly at night, but this one flies in the day during the summer.) In the meantime, I had also received an answer from Professor Shapiro! He said he would like to see my photo. I had to humbly write back and explain that I believed I had identified the mystery insect as a Gnophaela latipennis and sent him the photo. He wrote back again, confirming my ID. He told me that Gnophaela is "poisonous to predators and warningly colored and rather gregarious. The toxicity is taken from its host plants, Hackelia and Cynoglossum, which contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids. It has a sensationally warningly-colored caterpillar, too." He sent me a photo of the caterpillar, which you can see at the BugGuide site. It was as exciting to get my emails from the expert as it was to identify the mysterious, dancing "butterfly." Now if only I had photographed the clouds of periwinkle blue butterflies I saw on the same hike...