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Mourning Cloak

Mourning Cloak Caterpillars Pupating

Having overwintered as an adult, the Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) is one of the first butterflies seen in early spring.  Mating takes place and eggs are laid in a cluster encircling a twig of a willow, cottonwood, elm, birch or hackberry tree.  The hatching caterpillars stay together until they move off their host plant to pupate, which is what is happening right now and why you can find these distinctive spiny black and red caterpillars at this time of year. Adult Mourning Cloaks emerge in midsummer, enter a state of dormancy until fall and then seek a sheltered spot in which to hibernate until spring. 

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Mourning Cloak Butterflies Emerging

With the recent warm temperatures, Mourning Cloak butterflies have been seen gliding through fields and leafless woods.  Unlike most butterflies, Eastern Commas, Question Marks, Red Admirals and Mourning Cloaks overwinter as adults, seeking shelter in protected spots such as under loose bark. When spring arrives, they slip out from their winter quarters and take to the air.

Mourning Cloaks resemble dead leaves so much that from a distance the entire insect seems to disappear when it lands on the forest floor.  Up close you can see the velvety texture of the wing scales, said to resemble the clothing mourners used to wear; hence, their common name. Mourning cloaks live up to ten months — an impressive life span for a butterfly.  As they age, the yellow border of their wings fades to an off-white.

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Adult Butterflies Emerging, Mating & Laying Eggs

4-23-18 eastern comma3 0U1A0780Butterflies that remain in New England during the winter spend it in one of many stages – some as eggs, others as larvae or pupae, and a few as adults. Mourning Cloaks, Compton Tortoiseshells, Milbert’s Tortoiseshells, Question Marks, Gray Commas and Eastern Commas all overwinter as adult butterflies. They store fat in their bodies in the fall and replace a portion of the water in their blood with an antifreeze agent, which prevents the lethal formation of ice crystals in their bodies. These butterflies then slip into cracks, behind loose bark, in a hollow tree or some other sheltered spot where they enter a stage referred to as winter diapause. Metabolic and respiratory rates are greatly reduced, and the butterflies remain inactive until the warming, lengthening days of March and April, when they emerge to mate and lay eggs. They often look rather tattered, as they put many miles on their wings the previous summer. Unlike most adult butterflies which live only a few weeks, butterflies that overwinter as adults have a lifespan of eight to ten months. (Photo: Eastern Comma – note white “comma” on under side of hindwing)

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Mourning Cloaks Surviving On Sap

4-25-17 mourning cloak IMG_2827

Who doesn’t celebrate at the sight of a Mourning Cloak butterfly gliding through the woods on soft, spring breezes? Because the adults spend the winter hibernating behind loose bark, Mourning Cloaks are among the first butterflies to take flight in the spring. Most butterflies overwinter as eggs or pupae inside chrysalises, and have to complete metamorphosis before they can take to the air.

Surviving in March and April, when there is little, if any, nectar to be found, is challenging. Mourning Cloaks sustain themselves with the sap that exudes from broken tree branches or wounds in tree trunks. Oaks are their preferred source of sap. When they find some, they walk down the trunk to the sap and feed head downward (see photo).

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Mourning Cloak Butterflies Out From Under Tree Bark

mourning cloak butterfly IMG_5755Mourning Cloaks have recently emerged from under loose bark where they hibernated all winter. These early flyers, along with a few other species such as commas and tortoiseshells, have a jump start in the spring due to their not having to go through metamorphosis like most butterflies. Born last summer, Mourning Cloaks live for roughly ten months (longer than most butterflies), overwintering and breeding and laying eggs soon after appearing in the spring. This summer their larvae will feed on willows and poplars before pupating and emerging as adults in time to seek shelter for the winter. With snow still on the ground, nectar is quite scarce, leaving butterflies that are active this time of year dependent on tree sap available where branches have broken for much of their sustenance.

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