Locals asked to be on the lookout for rare butterfly

Published 8:00 am Saturday, May 12, 2018

In a joint effort to expand the knowledge and understanding of the flora and fauna of Polk County, Conserving Carolina and botanist David Campbell are asking for help locating this month’s “Polk County’s Most Wanted Animal,” the elusive Baltimore Checkerspot Butterfly (Euphydryas phaeton).

Arrayed in patterns of orange, black and white, the Baltimore Checkerspot derives its name from the historic Lord Baltimore of Maryland colony, whose family colors resemble that of the butterfly. With a wingspan of approximately 2.5-3 inches, this is considered a ‘medium’ sized species of butterfly for the region.

The Baltimore Checkerspot occurs throughout eastern North America, but seems to be more abundant in areas to the north of the southern Appalachians. Preferred habitats are wetlands and bogs, where the primary larval food plants, Turtlehead plants of the genus Chelone, are found.

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However, one may occasionally encounter this butterfly in upland habitats with no Turtlehead plants at all; in such localities species of Oak-leech (Aureolaria) are utilized by the caterpillars. In any case, the caterpillars pass the first stages of their life feeding as a colony and overwinter in silken nests communally.

When warm weather resumes in the spring, larvae disperse and may feed on a wide array of plants, including Ash (Fraxinus spp.).

The Baltimore Checkerspot occurs in relatively small colonies in our region, where it does not stray far from its larval hostplants. Considered rare in North Carolina, this species has suffered from habitat loss due to the draining of wetlands.

However, much remains to be learned of the Baltimore Checkerspot’s life history in upland habitats throughout the south. Although recorded in Polk County in the past, recent reports of this butterfly from the county have not been forthcoming. People may seek out this species in wet meadows or low, wet woods. Learning to recognize Turtlehead plant can be a good clue to locating this species.

The Baltimore Checkerspot is a very distinctive butterfly. If you feel that you have seen the species in Polk County, send photos, questions or comments to Pam Torlina at Conserving Carolina by phone at 828-697-5777, ext. 300, or email pam@conservingcarolina.org.

People may visit conservingcarolina.org/our-impact/education for more information about Polk County’s Most Wanted and to download and print a pocket guide with all of the most wanted plants, animals and habitats.

– Written by David Campbell