Sunday, May 20, 2012

Zebra longwing butterfly

A zebra longwing butterfly fluttering among the passionvines.
All this month I've been seeing large numbers of zebra longwing butterflies gathering around the seagrape tree in our front yard.  I became curious, and this weekend decided to investigate.  Mystery solved: a native passionvine had crept up the seagrape trunk and into the leaves over my head.  Passionvines are the larval food plant for a group of butterflies called longwings, of which the zebra is one, and this particular passionvine had been stripped bare of most of its leaves.

I settled myself and looked for details among the brown and green vines hanging from the branches.  I soon spotted a spent chrysalis, then another, and another. A zebra longwing's chrysalis is dull brown with darker brown markings, resembling a dried-up leaf.  I cut one down from above my head in order to take a closer look, and it started a vigorous swinging motion in my hand.  I nearly dropped it!  This chrysalis was still occupied, with its inhabitant attempting to scare me away so I wouldn't eat it.

Doesn't this chrysalis resemble a dried leaf?  Or an alien life form?

The chrysalis body is about one inch long, with feathery-looking "tails" and four iridescent metallic spots on the concave portion.  I'm guessing that I've been seeing the butterflies as they emerge from their chrysalis, and then perhaps when they return to lay eggs on the passionvine.
Zebra longwings have "zebra stripes" in a distinctive yellow and black pattern, making them easy to identify.

Some interesting facts about zebra longwing butterflies:
  • It is the official Florida State butterfly.
  • Zebras fly in slow, lazy, swooping paths.
  • They roost in small communities at night, hanging down from a tree branch or similar perch.
  • It's larval food (passionvine) makes both the caterpillar and the butterfly taste bad to predators.
  • They live longer than many of our other butterflies - sometimes up to six months.
  • Caterpillars feed exclusively on members of the passionvine family.
  • Zebra butterflies feast on nectar and pollen. Protein in the pollen contributes to their long life span.
  • They are  brush-footed butterflies, which means that their two front legs look like small brushes.  This is how they taste plants.
  • They can be found throughout Florida (especially south Florida), and range into Texas, Mexico, and Central and South America.
  • The caterpillars are ferocious-looking: a white body with black spines all over, and orange-brown feet.  The spines are harmless.
  •  The newly laid eggs are tiny yellow oval-shaped spheres, usually found on the tender tips of young passionvine leaves and tendrils.

    Zebra longwings are one of my favorite butterflies.  In the wild, they are a resident of hammock areas, but are equally at home in parks and home gardens.  All they need are the basics - a food source (for both caterpillar and butterfly), water, and shelter.

    For more information on zebra longwing butterflies:

    For teachers, parents, and kids:
    National Geographic's Kids Puzzler  (Zebra longwing puzzle or slider game to do online)
    Longwings coloring page (from my blog)
    Zebra longwing vocabulary words Word Search puzzle (from my blog)

    My nature journal sketches were done on Stillman & Birn Beta Series paper,
    with a Pitt Artist pen in black, XS size, with Daniel Smith watercolors.