Danaus Perplexus

Oops.

Sometimes, excitement over a particular project gets the better of me.  You know how it is: a thing happens and you assume about that thing, to realize later that oops, your assumption was, well, a bit off-base.

So it is with my Monarch musings of recent posts.  Specifically, the adventures of snipping some milkweed with attached caterpillars prior to a predicted freeze and settling them into my son’s vacated room for their metamorphosing process.  Turns out, most of the caterpillars are Queen butterflies, Danaus gilippus, and not Monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus.

It’s an easy mistake to make as they are both members of the same butterfly sub-family, Danainae.  They look similar, in both larval and adult stage, feed on the same host plant (milkweed) and share similar life-cycle events.  Interestingly, I’ve never had problems telling the two species apart in the adult butterfly stage, though many people do.  The adult Monarch is about a third larger, flies higher and with a different flight pattern, and sports “stripes,”

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…rather than “dots.”

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But I haven’t had all that much experience in viewing the larval stage.  That’s the thing about insects–they do their insect thing(s) and we humans don’t pay much attention unless those insect things are really obvious–you know, like flying around and landing on flowers.  It’s hard for us to miss that.

In my defense, I assumed that the ‘pillars were Monarchs because I’d seen a Monarch female lay eggs on the milkweed.  Additionally, I haven’t had as many Queens visit my gardens year, though they’re usually very common.  In retrospect, I remember observing a Queen at about the same time the Monarchs were migrating through, but don’t recall any egg-laying behaviors.

Not in my favor is the fact that I usually check and double-check my identifications because I’m not particularly confident in my wildlife critter knowledge.  When I observe a wild creature in my gardens, I usually check local sources first, like Austin Bug Collection, and then double-check the identification with a more comprehensive site like the excellent BugGuide.net, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, or Butterflies and Moths of North America.  Often I research further, comparing my photos and observations with varying sites–to avoid obvious mistakes.

In this case, I recognized that the one caterpillar that is a Monarch was different–I just didn’t follow-up on my visual observations.  I noticed he was larger, with slightly different color patterns, and that he only had two tentacle pairs–a pair of antennae near the head and a tentacle pair further down the abdomen.  The “other” cats had three sets: one set of antennae and two sets of tentacles.  You can clearly see the difference in this photo.

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I just didn’t pay close enough attention, nor did I intellectually process my observations. This kind of critter identification faux pas is one motivation behind hosting the Wildlife Wednesday garden blogging meme–to better my own citizen scientist abilities.

Well, this Monarch nannying was a big FAIL with that goal.  Bummer.  I’m not a scientist. 

In some ways, I’m glad that what I am nannying are Queens. Granted, Queens aren’t  as cool and sexy and important as the beleaguered Monarchs.  But, whatever hatches has a greater chance of normal survival–Queens can live year-round in South Texas and Austin is at the northern range of that year-round habitat.   If the caterpillars were Monarchs, the chances of a successful very late migration and overwinter survival in Mexico would be slim. Not impossible, but unlikely.  That these are Queens means that at the very least, they’ll hang around, nectar, and live out their life.

All that said, Mr. Nine Lives, aka Monarch larva, is not going to make it.  He’s currently curled up on the windowsill.  No photo here–let’s preserve some dignity. I don’t know why he’s dying.  It might be that I wasn’t careful when I handled him, that I didn’t wash my hands and transferred germs which caused illness, or that his thunk on the wooden floor and/or his dip in the water where the milkweed cuttings reside, did him in. I think the other chrysalides are progressing normally though.  I’ll report again on…whatever happens.

Despite my identification mistake and my limitations as a scientist (which are profound), I value and marvel at the beauty and miracle of the metamorphosis process. I’m grateful to witness this natural phenomenon.

Thanks to Michelle at Rambling Woods for setting me straight and teaching me something new!