The Long-tailed Skipper is one those butterflies that is so distinctive it stands out among the 446 moths and butterflies found in Alabama.
It’s also one of the butterflies that are still around in November most years – these photographs were taken in the middle of the month.
Two stand-out features on this insect are its long “tail,” which is really a long, narrow extended hindwing below its larger and more commonly shaped forewing. Since both lower wings have the same shape, this butterfly actually has two long tails, though they are often together and look like a single appendage when the insect is not flying. The long tail wings are fragile and easily broken; so if you think you see a Long-tail Skipper with a short tail, that’s probably what happened. If that’s the case, look for the other very obvious identifying characteristic: vivid blue-green iridescent coloring found on the top of its body and the base of the wings in stark contrast to the rest of its brownish body.
Long-tailed Skippers have large, broad heads and large eyes, with hairy bodies. Its wings are dark brown on top with light-colored spots. The underside of its body is a lighter brown than the top. The wingspan of a mature Long-tailed Skipper is 1-3/4 to 2-1/4 inches.
In its early stage of life, the Skipper caterpillar is yellow-green and striped. There is a black line that runs down the top of its body from stem to stern with yellow or orangish-red stripes on the sides of its body. This caterpillar has a black and dark red head with a yellow or orange spot on either side.
Long-tailed Skipper received its scientific name, Urbanus proteus, in 1758 from Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish doctor who created the modern two-word system for naming all living things used the world over.
From a scientific point of view, Long-tailed Skippers – and the entire 3,500-member world-wide family of skippers – may not actually be butterflies because they share characteristics of both true butterflies and moths. But for now, most experts consider them butterflies or something in between.
Long-tail Skippers have a very erratic, unpredictable flight pattern, and they move very quickly from flower to flower as they feed on nectar. They tend to seek out grown-up fields, gardens, the edges of forests, roadsides and other disturbed landscapes where they are indiscriminate diners, visiting any flower that contains nectar. When they rest, these butterflies take the protection under leaves, hanging upside down.
Long-tailed Skippers are native to the Americas from Argentina north in South America, throughout Central America and Mexico and the West Indies to the Southeastern U.S. and up the East Coast. In the U.S., Long-tailed Skippers migrate north each summer, and as temperatures cool down, they return south, ending up in Florida and South Texas, which is why they are found in Alabama in large numbers in the fall.
As an adult, the male Long-tailed Skipper exhibits territorial behavior, often finding a high perch 5 feet to 6 feet off the ground, where he can see all activity occurring in his turf. If a creature comes into his territory, he will launch himself at it and try to chase it away … unless the creature is a female Long-tailed Skipper, in which case he will attempt to mate with it.
According to butterfly-fun-facts.com, “If one hits you, it wasn’t because it didn’t see you. It was because it DID see you.”
If a male and female do decide to procreate, they engage in a courtship dance where they fly up together into the air in a spiral pattern and then fall back to earth. The relationship is consummated on the ground.
Female Long-tailed Skippers lay clusters of creamy white to blue-green colored eggs on the underside of host-plant leaves. Most clusters are two to six eggs but as many as 20 have been found together.
Host plants include members of the bean and pea family, which can be a big problem for some farmers. In Alabama, Long-tailed Skipper caterpillars are fond of the many species of native Beggar Lice (featured in the November edition of Lake magazine) as well as kudzu, other native vining plants and garden beans and peas.
Caterpillars cut and roll up leaves, holding them in place with strands of silk, to make a nest. This behavior gives this insect in its caterpillar state a couple of other nicknames: “Bean Leaf Roller” and “Roller Worm.”
And while a rolled up leaf doesn’t sound like much of a house, the caterpillar spends most of its time in the nest when it is not munching leaves. So it takes care of its home by engaging in a practice called “frass flinging.” Frass is another name for caterpillar poop – not the kind of thing you want cluttering up your living space.
When you look into the rolled-up leaf, the red-orange spots on their heads may look like eyes, which scientists think makes this caterpillar look scary to predators. If that doesn’t spook one of the wasps or Florida predatory stink bugs that consider Skipper caterpillars good for dinner, agitated caterpillars it will spit a bright green fluid as a second-line defense.
When this caterpillar has reached full size on a diet of leaves, it will pupate and make a cocoon of silk and pieces of leaves. The emerging Long-tailed Skipper butterfly has a lifespan of about a month.
Some information for this article came from the Florida Museum of Natural History, www.butterfliesandmoths.org, the Animal Diversity Web from the University of Michigan and www.butterfly-fun-facts.com.