You may recall that I mentioned my best friend, Mary, back in my March newsletter. We have been friends for many years and it has only been recently that I learned that she is an avid butterfly and moth watcher. I’ve received many photos from her of these sometimes-extraordinary insects clinging to the side of her cabin.
One butterfly that really caught my eye, though, is called the Mourning Cloak Butterfly. I mean, what Victorian-era writer wouldn’t like learning about that?
Mary told me that this unique butterfly is large, with a wingspan of up to 4 inches, and can live up to 12 months—one of the longest lifespans of any butterfly. It is also the state insect of Montana! The underside of the wing is coarse, brown, and resembles a chip of bark. But once this butterfly opens it wings, you see why it is also called the Grand Surprise or Camberwell Beauty.
Mourning Cloak butterflies are distributed broadly around the northern hemisphere. They are commonly found throughout all of North America and northern Eurasia, with colder winter climates.
They can usually be found in hardwood forests, although they have been found in virtually all habitats – except for where they were first discovered!
In 1748, the first Mourning Cloak Butterfly was found in London, England, by L. Hugh Newman, a British Entomologist. He likened the butterfly’s pattern to a girl who, disliking having to be in mourning, defiantly let a few inches of a bright dress show below her mourning dress.
Interestingly, although the Mourning Cloak was discovered in London, it is not found in London natively. After their discovery, Newman raised thousands for release at his farm in Bexley, but none were seen the following spring. However, specimens in his freezer did survive. It is thought that mild, wet winters prevented them from surviving there.
In a book Newman authored, he said that the Mourning Cloaks caught in England were suspiciously concentrated around London, Hull and Harwich, all being ports in the timber trade with Scandinavia. He theorized that they had hibernated in stacks of timber, which were then shipped to England. But since the Mourning Cloak had not traveled to London naturally, it could not adapt to the warmer winters, causing its demise. Perhaps its name is even more fitting after learning the story of its discovery!
What I find positively amazing is how closely the butterfly’s wings match the Florence Nightingale gown I had made for myself. If only I had a little peep of yellow peeking out beneath!
Are you a butterfly watcher? How do you think the Mourning Cloak compares to other butterflies you have seen?
Until next month, I remain—