Phylum: Arthropoda Class: Insecta Order: Lepidoptera
Species Status in Ontario: on SARO “Endangered” list since 2014
The Skipper family, Hesperiidae, is made up of 3 700 species worldwide, with 72 recorded in Canada. The family name comes from their tendency to “skip” from place to place by means of exceedingly rapid wing movements. Identification is difficult while skippers are in flight.
The Duskywing genus, Erynnis, are medium-sized skippers, with 13 species identified in Canada. Unlike other skippers, duskywings usually land on the ground rather than on plants. They have a characteristic pose when they alight – the wings are held below the horizontal position, giving an appearance of pressing firmly against the surface. When roosting on a twig or flowering plant, they often wrap their wings down and partly around it. These postures, visible from quite a distance, can help to narrow down skipper identification.
Erynnis martialis (Mottled Duskywing) is a medium-sized, dark grey and brown butterfly. Being of the skipper family, this species has a heavily muscled thorax, seemingly small, short wings, and a wide head, with antennae positioned far apart. As is true for all Canadian skippers, this species has antennal clubs that curve outward towards the tip, but unlike many in this family, E. martialis does not have the pointed extension (apiculus) that angles sharply outward beyond the club. All six legs are fully functional in both sexes.
In Ontario, Mottled Duskywing’s wingspan is recorded at between 25-33 mm. The outer half of the forewings have glassy spots. The fore and hind wings have brown fringes. The ventral (underside) wing surface is mainly brown, but with wide cream-coloured spots inside a dark line that defines the wing fringe. While all dorsal (upper) wing surfaces are mottled, what distinguishes “Mottled” Duskywing from other duskywings is the degree of the contrasted mottling pattern – light yellow-brown spots with dark brown spots on the hind wings – against the overall hind wing colour. This contrasting mottled pattern is true for both males and females.
Males can be distinguished from females by a fold in the leading edge of the forewing. This fold contains yellow scent scales (stigma) that harbour pheromones attractive to females. To attract males, pheromones are contained within scent scales on the sides of the female abdomen.
A purplish iridescence, especially on the forewings, characterizes the newly emerged adult. This feature fades with age.
The original range of Mottled Duskywing (MODU) extended from South-central Canada, including Southeastern Manitoba, Southern Ontario, and Southwestern Quebec, down into eastern and central United States. Now, this species is possibly extirpated from Quebec, along with many of the states within this range. Until recently, 9 metapopulations were known to exist in Southern Ontario. Existing near human settlement, these metapopulations are/were vulnerable to development and land conversion disturbances.
MODU relies exclusively on only one of two plant species for all life cycle needs, including oviposition (egg laying), larval sheltering and feeding, and adult nectaring and basking. Both dicotyledon plants, Ceanothus americanus (New Jersey Tea) and Ceanothus herbaceus (Prairie Redroot), are of the Buckthorn family, Rhamnaceae. Only C. americanus occurs with any frequency in Southern Ontario. Apparently, no other skipper feeds on C. americanus.
MODU populations will only occur where their host plant grows. Their host plant(s) prefers a dry habitat with sparse vegetation. In Ontario, this may be open barrens, sandy patches in woodlands, the rare ecosystems of Ontario – oak woodlands, pin woodlands, tallgrass prairies – and alvars. Alvars are limestone areas with shallow dry soil (clay or sandy), having sparse vegetation of early successional grass, shrub and wildflower species. Neither C. americanus nor C. herbaceous are tolerant of closed canopies.
While some skippers are migratory, E. martialis is a non-migratory species that uses their habitat, and specifically their host plant for all stages of life. Their flight is low to the ground in a fast, erratic pattern. By comparison with other duskywings, MODU are considered sedentary and less mobile. They are said to have limited dispersal ability.
Larvae build silk-lined leaf-nests on their food plants. Leaves are cut or folded or several are pulled together. With nocturnal feeding habits, they venture out at night to feed on leaves, or shorten their trip by cutting leaf sections to take back to their shelter for consumption later.
“Nectaring” is the act of feeding from floral nectar sources. Nectar is an essential adult food, rich in sugar. Adult MODUs tend to prefer sites with partial shade, abundant nectar sources and ample larval food plant, C. americanus, supply.
During mating season, the males will gather and patrol on local hilltops to attract and compete for females. Males can be seen “puddling” – sipping water from moist soil – in the company of other duskywing species. The salt and essential minerals gathered from soil water are incorporated into the male’s sperm and passed onto the female and her eggs when mating. These nutrients improve the viability of her eggs.
After mating occurs and the female has been fertilized, she will deposit her eggs on the leaves of a host, C. americanus or C. herbaceus, plant. Her eggs are hemispherical, with fine sculpturing or marked with vertical ridges. They begin pale green in colour, but quickly turn to pink.
Larvae (caterpillars) hatch only days after egg-laying. They are stout, sluggish, pale green, smooth or covered with fine bumps, short hairs or tubercles. Their large heads are dark with small patches of red, orange or yellow. The prothorax is narrow, giving the appearance of having a neck. They are cylindrical in shape, sometimes tapered at both ends. The last segments often divide into two “tails”. At maturity, they can be 25 mm long. The larva creates a day shelter for itself by stitching leaves together with silk. At night, the caterpillar leaves the shelter to feed.
A mature larva spins a cocoon no more than 1-2 cm beneath the leaf litter at the base of its food plant. In the extreme part of southwestern Ontario, it will pupate (form a chrysalis) and emerge a few weeks later, unless the weather is unfavourable. In this case, or if its habitat is further north, it will go into diapause (a state of dormancy) and overwinter.
Exposure to early spring solar warmth encourages pupation. Emergence occurs mid-May to early-June, depending on northerly/southerly location within the range. The chrysalis, or pupa, vary from dark green to brown. Round and smooth, it has a squared off head, a noticeable tongue and a tail that comes to a tufted point.
Adults are on the wing by mid May to late June. In extreme southwestern Ontario, the female may lay a second brood, to hatch early July and take flight mid-July to late August.
The main threat to Mottled Duskywing is destruction of habitat, including habitat fragmentation, due to various forms of human development. These include changes by design, such as the planting of jack pine; pesticide use, including spraying for gypsy moth control; flooding; and, introduction of invasive species, such as Dog Strangling Vine. All being direct threats to MODU’s host plant, C. americanus (New Jersey Tea), they present real and present dangers to this butterfly species.
Also threatening MODU’s host plant are natural habitat changes resulting from natural succession, canopy closure and deer browsing. Disturbance such as fire, both natural and controlled burns, can cause direct mortality of individual butterflies; however, this kind of disturbance will also serve to maintain suitable habitat conditions. The woody plants get burned off, clearing the way and open the canopy for fire tolerant New Jersey Tea to flourish.
Presently, there are only small, scattered populations of Erynnis martialis (Mottled Duskywing) in Ontario. Similar duskywings, Karner Blue, Frosted Elfin and Eastern Persium are mostly gone from Ontario and Canada at large. As we speak, The Ontario Butterfly Species at Risk Recovery Team is working to reintroduce and establish a self-sustaining population of Mottled Duskywing butterfly in the oak savanna habitat of Pinery Provincial Park (on the southern shore of Lake Huron).
To learn more about:
- the Mottled Duskywing recovery project, please follow OBSARRT
- Ceanothus americanus plant, please follow New Jersey Tea
- species at risk recovery, in general, and how to be a good steward, please follow “About Species at Risk Recovery in Ontario”
Linton, Jessica. 2015. Recovery Strategy for the Mottled Duskywing (Erynnis martialis) in Ontario.
Ontario Recovery Strategy Series. Prepared for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, Peterborough, Ontario. v + 39 pp.
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