If you’ve walked in a shrubby meadow lately, you are probably well aware that Common Wood Nymphs (Cercyonis pegala) are everywhere. Each step seems to flush one, which, after some erratic flying, settles back down beneath the grasses, hidden from view. These butterflies are in a group called “satyrs” which consists of mainly medium-sized, brown butterflies. They belong to the Nymphalidae family, also known as brush-footed butterflies, or four-footed butterflies. The reason for these common family names is immediately apparent when examining a Common Wood Nymph (or Monarch, Painted Lady, fritillaries or checkerspots). Butterflies in this family look as though they only have four feet. Being insects, however, they have six. The front two legs are folded up in front of its head, and are extremely small and bristly. These reduced legs are present in all brush-footed butterflies, and are not used for walking or clinging. Rather, the bristles on these legs are sensory organs, used for detecting smells and for tasting. The butterfly’s proboscis is coiled up between this front pair of legs.
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Butterflies in the family Nymphalidae are also referred to as brush-footed butterflies (their front pair of legs are much reduced, brush-like and nonfunctional). Several species of Admiral butterflies belong to this family, and one of the most common in New England is the White Admiral, also known as the Red-spotted Purple. White Admirals overwinter as caterpillars and emerge in late April to feed for several weeks on the young leaves of cherries, willows, poplars and birches, as well as other trees, before forming chrysalises and transforming into butterflies. It is relatively easy to recognize the larva of any species of Admiral butterfly, as they are our only horned bird-dropping mimics. Quite an effective way to discourage predators!