Nature Note 35: Cryptic Colors - The Mourning Cloak

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Nature Note

Cryptic Colors - The Mourning Cloak

Mourning Cloak butterfly, wings spread; dark reddish-brown with two edge bands: yellow, black above with bright blue spots.

Watch now for the Mourning Cloak butterfly, in and near woodlands. It is the earliest springtime active butterfly in Maine. Mourning Cloaks sometimes make a surprise appearance during a late-winter thaw, emerging out of an over-wintering hiding place, such as a snug deep crevasse in a woodpile or hollow tree where they stay protected during cold months as an adult, to flit about in the warmth and feed at mud puddles and on tree sap.

The underside of a Mourning Cloak's wings is cryptic. When the wings are closed - held together vertically above the back - they look much like grey tree bark and make it easy for the butterfly to hide in plain site!

Mourning Cloaks are best spotted, when they are flying or sunning with wings spread out wide - when you can see the topside of the wings. This butterfly's name comes from the now not so prevalent cultural tradition of wearing dark clothing after a family member dies. At the time of this tradition, some young girls were allowed to add, or may have defiantly added, slight decoration to their mourning cloaks so that they were not so somber. Look at the photo of the Mourning Cloak butterfly. The upper wing is mainly a deep reddish-brown. Often it is such a deep maroon that it looks almost black. Can you see the "decoration" along the wing edge? The yellow-gold band with the black band above enclosing the bright blue spots would have been considered close to extravagant on a young girl's mourning cloak. (A cloak is a long hooded cape that can wrap around the body.)

Mourning Cloak larvae (caterpillar). Black with tiny white spots, black spines, and large orange spot on back of each segment.

Mourning Cloak larvae (caterpillars) emerge from small white eggs then spend several weeks feeding on the leaves of the host plant  on which their egg was affixed. Host plants include willows, poplars, and paper birch.  As the larvae grow they go through several molts, a shedding of their skin, before maturing to a length of two inches. They then pupate, forming a chrysalis. Within the chrysalis they transform into a butterfly - an amazing natural process called metamorphosis. 

Note the long black spines and the orange patches on the back of the Mourning Cloak caterpillar in the photo. Why do you think it has these spines and bright colored patches? Why do you think the adult butterfly has a bright stripe and bright blue spots along the wing edge?

Interesting Facts

  • Mourning Cloak adults live about 11 months - longer than most butterflies.
  • Eggs are laid in single-layered clusters around the stems of host plants.
  • Caterpillars mature in early summer.
  • Adults (the butterfly stage) are not seen during the heat of summer because they go dormant (aestivation). They emerge again in the fall to feed before overwintering, then emerge in the springtime to mate.
  • Adults may play dead if attacked by a predator.
  • Adults feed on tree sap and fermenting fruit, only occasionally flower nectar.

Activities for Children and Young at Heart

  1.  Look up the state insects of all the states in the USA. How many are butterflies? Is the Mourning Cloak a state insect? If so, where?
  2.  Create your own butterfly species! Draw all the life stages: egg, larva, pupa, adult of complete metamorphosis. Select where it lives - what is its habitat? Select it's niche - what is its role? - how does it get its food, where does it fit in the food chain, how does it impact the environment? Choose coloration, spines or no spines, dots, stripes... differences in patterns between top and undersides of the wing... but explain all your choices. Why have you colored it this way? Hint: Form follows function.
  3. Watch for butterflies on your next hike. In the woods and along woodland edges watch for the Mourning Cloak. Later in the spring and summer look for butterflies in flower gardens and flowering meadows. Do you see several kinds of butterflies at one time? Do they all feed at the same flower, or on the same kind of tree sap? If you find caterpillars, can you find out what adult butterfly (or moth) they will become? Add your observations to your nature journal - note date, time weather and location. Add drawings and your thoughts. Have fun exploring!

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