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Professor Philip Howse explores the brown butterfly family

PUBLISHED: 14:45 25 June 2014

Philip Howse

Philip Howse

Anthony Blake Photography

Most brown butterflies belong to the family Satyridae. Satyrs were the half man and half goat creatures of Greek mythology.

Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina)Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina)

Butterflies including the meadow brown, gatekeeper and grayling have images of small bird eyes on their wing-tips: they are bird-butterfly satyrs. It is this ambiguity that protects them. If a bird hesitates for a fraction of a second, confused, the butterfly is gone. The Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) is even pictured in Heironymus Bosch’s triptych ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ with a bird beak. This butterfly is common in meadows in the summer months, though its caterpillars do not like grazed fields with short grass or imported forage grasses.

The Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus), which is fond of sitting in the sun on gates and posts (hence its name) and the delicate Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilis) are smaller copies of the meadow brown, perhaps even mimics of one-another, flying also in July and August in similar habitats.

The browns use grasses not just for food but as a pharmacy. When there was an outbreak of anthrax in the early 1930’s in Lincolnshire, the brilliant and eccentric entomologist Miriam Rothschild noticed that while other animals were dying, meadow browns, gatekeepers and other brown butterflies were thriving. After 9/11, governments began worrying about chemical warfare, and, recalling her early experience, Miriam found that the caterpillars contained novel antibiotics that came from symbiotic fungi growing around the grass roots. Thus the butterflies are protected against bacterial infections by a course of antibiotics taken before metamorphosis. Furthermore these compounds are used in chemical defence: they are toxic to birds.

The Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus), look for it in July and August in long grasses by hedgerows and woods, has a row of eye-spots. These eye-spots reflect ultraviolet light, which birds can see and we can’t. The “eyes” stand out clearly in the dim light of dawn and dusk when birds maybe foraging among dead leaves and no doubt can be mistaken for eyes of small mammals – not what they are looking for at all. The Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria), which is found in similar habitat, also has a series of false eyes and looks like a flake of bark peppered with tiny shafts of sunlight. Because it is around in May and June and then again in late August and September it doesn’t compete for territory with ringlets.

In late spring and summer, in areas where the grass is short and sparse like the chalk slopes in Purbeck, look out for a rusty orange butterfly, similar to a Speckled Wood, which is often seen basking on walls and stony banks. This is the Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera).

The Marbled White (Melanargia galathea) despite looking a bit like a piece of Formula One chequered flag, is actually a satyrid, and therefore, paradoxically, a brown. The butterfly is commonly seen on chalk and limestone downs in the early summer months, especially on the South Dorset coast and Dorset Wildlife Trust reserves such as Fontmell Down.

In August be on the look out for Graylings (Hipparchia semele) on heath land (especially in south east Dorset). When a grayling settles it first holds its wings together vertically with the eye-spots showing, then it does the most remarkable disappearing act. It withdraws the forewings, concealing the spots, and tilts the closed wings towards the sun to eliminate its shadow. Its wing patterns then merge with the ground cover.

About Philip Howse

Professor Philip Howse taught animal behaviour and entomology at the Universities of Cardiff and Southampton. His research took him to countries including Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, Nigeria, Malaysia, the West Indies and India. He invented methods of controlling insect pests of horticulture and agriculture without the use of synthetic pesticides, for which he received various awards including the OBE and a Prince of Wales Award for Innovation. His books include Butterflies, Messages from Psyche and (with Kirby Wolfe) Giant Silkmoths; Colour, Mimicry and Camouflage (both published by Papadakis). He is currently working on his next book The Vicar of the Amazon, The Reverend Miles Moss about a Victorian butterfly collector, artist and musician.

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