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Wild Thing: Dog on the WIng

The southern dogface butterfly appears to have tiny poodles on its wings.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Next time you're outdoors, watch for a brilliant yellow-and-black butterfly flitting among fall flowers. Good luck with getting an up-close look, though. Southern dogfaces fly fast.

Photographs or specimens provide the best views of Zerene cesonia, especially for understanding how the species got its name. On the insect's open forewings, two black dots mark the "eyes" of two yellow-headed poodles, profiled against black (the images resemble an ink splotch on a folded card). With wings closed, a dog's face may still be glimpsed when lit from behind. In the fall, their markings turn pink. Females are more subtle in color.

Southern dogfaces – which occur year-round throughout most of Texas – belong to the sulphurs, a group of yellow, orange and white butterflies. The California dogface – California's state insect – closely resembles the southern dogface, but is more orange in color. Adults prefer the nectar of coreopsis, bluet and verbena. Caterpillar food plants include indigo bush, Texas kidneywood, dalea, clovers and other legumes.

Sometimes young male sulphurs congregate at muddy or sandy puddles and sip water, a behavior called "mud puddling." It's thought that dissolved minerals and particularly salts from the soil provide essential nutrients, which males later pass to their mates during copulation.

Thanks to artist Steve Buchanan, the southern dogface now graces a postage stamp. In June 2007 the U.S. Postal Service released his beautiful "Pollination" images in a 20-stamp booklet that stresses the critical relationship between pollinators and plants. On the stamp, alongside bumble bees, a calliope hummingbird and a lesser long-nosed bat, a southern dogface hovers above a cluster of purple ironweed.

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