Look closely for the subtle glamour of the satyr butterflies.
By Robert A. Behrstock
To the ancient Greeks, satyrs were rowdy, decadent gods, with the upper body of a man and the horns and furry hindquarters of a goat. They rambled through forests and mountains, spending their time in merry self-indulgence, drinking, dancing and chasing nymphs - spirits of nature and their female counterpart.
Contemporary biologists take great pains to ascribe neither human nor god-like traits to animals, but the taxonomists of the 18th and 19th centuries, who were charged with inventing Greek and Latin names for thousands of plants and animals, had few such inhibitions.
Collectors had noticed one large group of small- to medium-sized, rather dull-colored butterflies that fluttered through sunny forest glades and across mountain meadows with a characteristic bouncy flight. After pausing to drink at a fallen fruit or a drop of sap, the males would often chase wildly after the females. Remembering his mythology, the Danish biologist Fabricius named the genus Satyrus, commemorating the satyrs and nymphs who enlivened the forests and meadows of ancient Greece.
A Nearly Ubiquitous Butterfly
A sizeable group of butterflies, with perhaps 2,500 species worldwide, satyrs live in all but the harshest environments: barren deserts, icy polar lands and the tallest mountaintops. Tropical latitudes host the greatest numbers, but satyrs occur in nearly any terrestrial habitat, from steamy equatorial jungles and boggy sub-arctic spruce forests to the highest limits of mountain vegetation. There, in bright sun and thin air, species aptly named arctics and alpines spend their few summer days flitting among lichen-covered boulders and feeding on tiny flowers and grasses stunted by wind and snow.
Sometimes placed in their own family, Satyridae, satyrs usually are included within the huge assemblage of brush-footed butterflies or Nymphalidae (from the nymphs of ancient Greece), characterized by possessing two - not three - pairs of perching legs; the front-most pair is greatly reduced. Up close, satyrs may be distinguished from the other brushfoots by a bubble-like swelling at the base of the forewing containing hearing organs.
In flight, their low, jerky progress is distinctive. Their wingbeats occur so slowly that the butterflies often seem to fall a bit between each stroke. Unlike most brushfoots, which are adorned in arresting patterns of red, orange and blue, the less-conspicuous satyrs generally rely on a limited palette of earth tones: brown, tan, rust and gray. Additionally, nearly all satyrs have one or more false eyespots near the margin of their wings.
Although many of them appear dull from a distance, close-focusing binoculars reveal their true beauty, including designs of delicate black scribbling and subtle gradations of hue, often accented by tiny, mirrorlike scales. When viewed out of context - in hand or on the page of a field guide - these patterns appear bold and distinctive. In habitat, their camouflage is reminiscent of that of a screech owl, rattlesnake or fence lizard. Their complex markings allow them to dissolve into a background of sun-dappled leaves, tree bark, dead grasses or a mosaic of earth and pebbles.
Rather than depending on flower nectar like most brushfoots, adult satyrs usually dine on a smorgasbord of nutrient-rich foods such as tree sap, bird and mammal droppings, fungi, aphid honeydew and rotting fruit. Decreasing their reliance on flowers provides various advantages. On the dark forest floor, where nectar-producing blossoms may be nearly absent, meals of rotting fruit and bird droppings frequently rain down from overhead.
Why have satyrs - members of a group of insects famous for their brilliant colors - embraced obscurity? The answer lies in the adage "you are what you eat." With few exceptions, satyr caterpillars eat plants known as monocots: grass, sedge, cane and bamboo. By eating such widespread foods, satyrs have occupied woodlands, marshes, prairies, bogs - indeed, nearly any habitat where grasses grow.
However, this success has not come without a price. Grasses and their kin lack the poisonous chemicals that often protect more recently evolved plants from insect larvae. Many caterpillars, such as the monarchs, have the ability to eat these chemicals and incorporate them into their body, rendering them, and the butterflies they become, distasteful. Subsisting on harmless monocots, satyr caterpillars taste good to birds, and pass no chemical defenses to their equally good-tasting butterflies. Lacking a noxious taste, or the protective spines found on many insect larvae, satyr caterpillars go about their business camouflaged in green, brown or yellow, matching the living or dying grasses among which they feed. Some feed only at night, protecting themselves from all but the most inquisitive day-flying birds.
The satyr's characteristic eyespots serve multiple roles. Consisting of an outer ring with a contrasting center, these false eyes bear an eerie resemblance to those of mammals and birds. Suggesting their great survival value, such eyespots have evolved on many kinds of completely unrelated animals, including octopi, birds, frogs and fishes, as well as on butterflies such as buckeyes, painted ladies and morphos. Some satyrs possess just one or two eyespots per side; others have several positioned along the hind margins of their wings. Both their size and location resemble the false eyes of fishes such as damselfish, peacock bass and many butterflyfishes.
Invariably, such spots are much larger and more colorful than the real eyes, and are placed at the rear of the body, far from the animal's head. Because predators often strike the head of their prey, such false eyes misdirect the attack to a less vulnerable portion of the animal, allowing it to escape with only the loss of a bit of wing or fin. Indeed, anyone who spends time watching butterflies will encounter survivors with wedge-shaped pieces missing from their wings, the marks of unsuccessful bird attacks. Additionally, the patterns and shapes of eyespots vary among species and sexes of satyrs. Thus, they also serve as visual cues by which the various kinds identify both intruders and potential mates.
The Texas Satyrs
By virtue of its size, habitat diversity, favorable climate and central location, Texas hosts an astonishing variety of butterflies. Stretching from the subtropical Mexican border to the soggy bayous of the upper coast, the rolling sandhills of the Panhandle and the pine-clad mountains of the far west, the state is home to about 450 kinds of butterflies, more than 60 percent of the total for the United States and Canada. Thirteen of the nearly 50 North American satyrs are known from Texas. Surprisingly, the Rio Grande Valley, which boasts the country's richest assortment of butterflies, can claim only two species of satyrs, whereas the shady, moist woodlands of East Texas host a total of nine. Of the 13 Texas satyrs, three are extremely rare and best sought outside the state. Thus, butterfly watchers or butterfliers (frequently recycled birders toting close-focus binoculars), will do very well indeed to find 10 in Texas.
From the Rio Grande Valley east to the Sabine River, butterfliers will have no trouble finding the dainty Carolina satyr, a thumbnail-sized mite that greatly outnumbers its cousins. A hike through pine, ebony or oak woodlands may send dozens scurrying from the trailside. In the rainforest of southern Mexico I found them similarly common, feasting on roadside banana peels at the Mayan ruins of Palenque. From below, the Carolina satyrs' dusky brown hindwing is marked with a row of eyespots of varying intensity. South Texas individuals are pale with indistinct eyespots; in East Texas (and southern Mexico) they're more crisply marked.
Common as it is, the identity of the Carolina satyr is an item for debate. Is this butterfly simply one wide-ranging species found from Brazil to New Jersey, or a chain of similarly marked and difficult-to-distinguish relatives? Such are the questions that arouse butterfly specialists.
With a wingspan of up to three inches, the common wood nymph is the state's largest satyr. It is found across the United States and throughout much of Texas, absent only from the Rio Grande Valley. Watch for them at moist, grassy areas such as pond edges, prairies, stream banks and forest margins. One of the few U.S. satyrs that sips flower nectar, a wood nymph may appear at your butterfly garden, but they also can also be lured in with a plate of aging banana or papaya.
The large eyespots on the underside of the forewings, occasionally made more obvious by a surrounding wash of pale yellow, have earned it the names goggle eye and ox-eyed satyr. As a perched wood nymph shifts its closed forewing, these false eyes are suddenly revealed. Many biologists believe this display will startle a bird and discourage an attack. However, butterfly specialist Robert Pyle found that large eyespots don't necessarily prevent attacks. When he examined more than 300 common wood nymphs, more than 30 had their eyespots nipped by birds. Thus, the eyespots' survival value had been to misdirect attacks, not prevent them.
In the western United States, three additional wood nymphs that evolved in drier habitats provide identification challenges. Mead's wood nymph is the most colorful of the trio and has the smallest range. It inhabits the high country of West Texas in the Chisos, Davis and Guadalupe mountains, flying in piñon-juniper woodlands and forests of ponderosa pine. Smaller than the common wood nymph, it flies later in the year and bears a rusty suffusion surrounding its forewing eyespots.
Southern and creole pearly-eyes are two large satyrs of the dark, swampy bottomland forests and streamsides in Southeast Texas. Both fly near beds of giant cane, their caterpillars' food plant. Nearly alike in appearance, with rows of striking eyespots on all four wings, they are identified by subtle marks such as the pattern of white surrounding the hindwing spot row. Their adult and larval foods are similar, as are their forest haunts where the two may fly side-by-side. Even so, the creole pearly-eye is generally the less common of the two. Male pearly-eyes often perch motionless on tree trunks, revealing their location when they dash out after passing females. Previously, they were classified in the genus Lethe, a river in the ancient underworld and a perfect allusion to their shadowy, wet surroundings.
Canyonland and gemmed satyrs are members of a group of about 25 Central American species, three of which spill over into the United States. Most are tan or ruddy brown and about the size of a quarter. Their tiny eyespots are present in small numbers and usually have mirror-like centers. The canyonland satyr of West Texas flies on piñ on-juniper slopes, as well as oak- and pine-covered mountains where sufficient moisture supports the grasses upon which they feed. In a moist canyon bottom high in the Davis Mountains below Mount Livermore, I found one sipping moisture from creekside gravel. It flew among the larger Mead's wood-nymphs and red satyrs, distinguished for lacking the large forewing eyespots or red flush on the forewing.
Whether you're in a dense subtropical thicket in the Rio Grande Valley or a moss-draped woodland near the Louisiana border, a small brown butterfly with a mirror-spangled gray patch on its underwing will be the gemmed satyr. Each year, it has two flight periods, a common phenomenon in butterflies. However, the gemmed satyr is one of the only butterflies that produce not only seasonally colored caterpillars (green in spring, brown in late summer), but also forms a chrysalis that matches the season's colors.
The little wood satyr is dark brown and tan with two bold forewing eyespots that are visible (unlike the Carolina satyr's) from both below and above. An early flier, it is on the wing weeks before most summer species have emerged. Often very common, its slightly larger size helps differentiate fly-bys from the many Carolina satyrs nearby. The closely related red satyr is found in higher and drier stands of juniper and pine in West Texas. I found them plentiful at Dog Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains, flushing one from the trail every 50 to 100 feet. Its range overlaps that of little wood satyr just slightly on the Edwards Plateau, but the red is distinguished by the reddish wash and single large eyespot on its forewing.
An East Texas Rarity
Once they're up to speed with the common species, butterfliers, like birders, are likely to start chasing rarities. Seeing my first Georgia satyr provided the incentive for a drive to the Big Thicket National Preserve near Beaumont on a warm June morning. Some of the westernmost populations of this scarce butterfly are located in a handful of counties bordering Louisiana. There, the Georgia satyr is restricted to moist, longleaf pine savanna - a habitat that's dependent on periodic fires. These magnificent forests have become rare in Texas, along with birds such as the red-cockaded woodpecker and Bachman's sparrow that inhabit them. Now, tree planting and controlled burning are encouraging the return of this habitat. During such a burn, butterflies may be eliminated temporarily so the satyr's colonies shift as the forest is manipulated. Having missed the satyr on four previous trips, I was happy to have some help on this attempt.
During botanical surveys, butterflier and author Geyata Ajilvsgi had located Georgia satyrs near Silsbee, where we quickly found several. In true satyr fashion, the first ones eluded us by dashing erratically through the pines. Eventually, I was flat on my belly, oblivious to prickly briars and fire ants, where I could appreciate my quarry's pattern through a camera lens. Several bands of deep orange crossed its underwing; another formed an oval, within which tiny patches of silvery scales were embedded in fingers of pale yellow. One hundred and eighty-five years ago, a taxonomist named this butterfly Neonympha: a new nymph. Its name holds true; it was very different from the many satyrs I'd seen.
Watching and identifying satyrs through binoculars is not for the impatient. Many observers will be satisfied with the knowledge that a small, dark, woodland butterfly with a low, bobbing flight is a satyr. More aggressive observers, field guide at the ready, will examine every individual. A few species are notoriously difficult to follow as they dart in and out of sunbeams and shadows before suddenly alighting in a vine tangle or dropping to the leaf litter. Good looks at these provide that special incentive to persist.
Difficulties aside, for the informed naturalist, every sighting offers its own reward - not the least of which is a visit to the delightful forests of the satyrs and nymphs.