June 25, 2022
Yesterday I decided it was time to clean the front flower beds again. I had hoped that by putting twice as much mulch on them than usual I would not have to do this, but I guess I still do not put enough on as the grass and weeds were again poking through. Zena was getting antsy so I decided to stake her in the front yard on her long leash so she could play in a new area. She has taken to lying in the shade under the snowball bush (Hydrangea arborescens) at the end of our morning walks, so I made sure she had access to the shade, her water, and where I was working. It did not take Zena too long to get her leash wrapped around the bush. I got up to help but she figured out how to unwrap herself before I got there. I took this as an excuse to take a break and sat in the chair I had moved into the shade at the edge of the front entry. As I sat down, I noticed a swallowtail butterfly working on the Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata) flowers.
When I looked online, I found the (eastern) black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), also called the American swallowtail or parsnip swallowtail, is a butterfly found throughout much of North America and is the state butterfly of Oklahoma and New Jersey. The species is named after Polyxena, a figure in Greek mythology who was the youngest daughter of King Priam of Troy. The body of the butterfly is black with rows of small white dots running down its length. The dorsal (back) view displays black forewings edged in two rows of white dots with two larger spots close to the edge. The smaller, black hindwings also have two rows of white dots, but an iridescent blue is sandwiched between them, and each hindwing has a bright orange and black eyespot at the bottom near the body. Long extensions form a ‘tail’ on each wing. The black swallowtail ranges from southern Canada to South America but are more common east of the Rockies. They are usually found in open areas like fields, parks, marshes, or deserts, and prefer tropical or temperate habitats. Black Swallowtails can be found in gardens, meadows, forests, and other habitats. Adults drink flower nectar and are attracted to fennel plants (like phlox) and flowering herbs like dill. A similar-appearing species (Papilio joanae) occurs in the Ozark Mountains region.
I was excited when I first identified the butterfly on our phlox because I thought it was an Ozark swallowtail. The Ozark was once considered an alternative expression of the black swallowtail and the two are almost identical. This butterfly is indigenous to the Ozark Mountains in the US but is considered uncommon to rare in the region. The Ozark may be seen from April to September and is usually found in cedar glades and woodland habitats. The caterpillar is also morphologically like the black swallowtail caterpillar. The two species are more easily distinguished by the different habitat and host plants on which the caterpillar feeds. Despite the similarity, analysis of the Ozark’s DNA suggests it is more closely related to the Old World swallowtail (Papilio machaon) than the black. One site suggested the only sure way to tell the difference was from a DNA test in the lab. That did not happen. Given the rarity of the Ozark and the fact I was not in a secluded forest glade, I am sticking with the black swallowtail.
THOUGHTS: The Black Swallowtail looks almost identical to the pungent-tasting Pipevine Swallowtail and uses this mimicry as a defense against predators. Mimicry is an adaptation in which one animal evolves to look like another. Animals use mimicry to avoid predators, but some predators use mimicry to obtain food, and some parasites use mimicry to help them escape detection. Mimicry is a very effective adaptation, and it is crucial to the survival of many species. Humans have adapted mimicry in our clothing styles, speech, and actions to allow us to blend in with groups. Long hair and cowboy hats used to be markers of opposite ideologies, but now that is not always the case. It is time to move beyond first impression dismissal and get to know each other. Act for all. Change is coming and it starts with you.