Gossamer Wing family butterfly is called the “gossamers” because some of the butterflies have wings, which are so sheer and delicate the wings look like the soft, filmy, sheer fabric called gossamer. They are also called “the little butterflies” because many butterflies in the family are small with wing spans of ⅞” to 2’’ (22 – 51 mm) wide.
The Gossamer family includes about 4700 worldwide. It is possibly the largest of the butterfly families. There are many species in the tropical areas of the planet. There are 142 species in North America, including several in the Arctic. Approximately, 55 species make the East Coast region of the U.S. their home.
Scientists divide the family into four lycaenid subfamilies: Harvesters, Hairstreaks, Coppers, and Blues.
Adult Life Cycle Stage
None of the adult Gossamer butterflies mimic any other known specie of butterflies. Many Gossamer butterflies have eyespots and hair like tails on their hindwings., which are usually on the opposite end of their real eyes and antennae. These butterflies don’t migrate but live, reproduce and overwinter locally without coming or going to other areas. Except for one species, the Pygmy Blue, does migrate.
The males of most of the Gossamer group perch and wait for females to fly by, except for the Blues. The Blue males generally patrol to find females.
These butterflies have large bodies and small wings. They are strong fliers. They often don’t fly more than several feet without landing. This makes them easy to see. Some species are swifter fliers or more erratic in flight that others. These Little butterflies tend to rest with wings closed but bask with wings open, except for the some of the Hairstreaks.
Egg Life Cycle Stage
The eggs of the butterflies in this family are highly ornamental. A single egg is laid on a plant, on new growth or near where new growth is expected to be in the spring.
Caterpillar Life Cycle Stage
The larvae are inconspicuous and secretive. These caterpillars don’t have the waving osmeterium of the Swallowtails of the outrageous appearance of the Brushfoots butterflies
Almost half of the 5,000 Lycaenidae (Gossamer) species are tended by ants. This works out over 2,500 species. Many larvae associate with ants in one way or another. Ants, attend many Gossamer caterpillars, especially the Blues. Many of the pupae emit chirp-like squeaks most likely to communicate with ants.
The ants bring the caterpillars to the ants’ nests where they tend the caterpillars and protect them from parasites and predators. The caterpillars in turn, produce a substance called “honeydew” which the ants feed on or feed to the ant larva.
Most Gossamer species eat flowers parts instead of just leaves as many other butterfly larva. A small number of Lycaenid larva fed on aphids or ant pupae, which makes these caterpillars carnivorous or flesh-eaters. Flesh-eating caterpillar sounds like something out of a nightmare.
The larvae eat dicotyledon plants, which have broad, stalked leaves with netlike veins. The plants include cedars, junipers, pines, vetches, blueberries, and curly dock among many others. This is different from the Grass Skippers, which eat grasses (monocotyledons), which have parallel veins. Most of the caterpillars in this family have specialized diets and can be identified by their hostplant. Many Hairstreaks and Blues specialize on flowers or fruits.
Pupae and Chrysalis Life Cycle Stage
I couldn’t find any information about the chrysalis of Gossamer butterflies. When I do I will update this section.
How the Butterflies Spend the Winter
These butterflies tend to spend the winter in the egg or chrysalis (pupae). The caterpillars can then hatch from the eggs or butterflies emerge from the pupae. When spring begins and the tender young leaves unfurl and flowers produce nectar, these caterpillars can eat these early food sources. The Gossamer Family’s Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon) is one of the earliest butterflies to fly in the spring after the Mourning Cloaks, Commas, and Tortoiseshells, which overwinter as adults.
Subfamilies of Gossamer Butterfly Family
When researching these posts on the butterfly families, the point that different scientists count different families and subfamilies was very clear. Biologists are often called “lumpers” or “splitters”. Either they “lump” various species together as a group or family or they split them out into more separate groups based one characteristic or another. I decided to use the following subfamilies.
There are four subfamilies of Lycaenid is the East Coast region. A few species that are the most common and widespread are listed.
There are 50 species in the world and 1 in the southeastern U.S. The Harvester common name refers to these caterpillars “harvesting” insects to eat. These caterpillars eat aphids, mealy bugs, leafhoppers and treehoppers. The Chrysalis or pupae is very wide and the top view looks like the head of a monkey.
- Harvester (Feniseca tarquinius) – The chrysalis (pupae) the top looks like a “monkey face”
About 50 Copper butterflies species occur worldwide with 14 in North America ranging from the central U.S. up into the Arctic. The adult butterflies are often “copper or orange” in color. But they may be yellow, gray, blue or brown above and often white beneath. The eggs usually overwinter in North America. The adults are local and don’t migrate. All species feed on flower nectar as adults.
- American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas)
- Bronze Copper (Lycaena hyllus)
There are about 2,000 species worldwide; 1,000 in the tropical areas of the Americas and 75 species in North America. Male Hairstreaks often have hair-like tails on their hindwings. These hair-like tails give the butterflies their common name. These tails aren’t as large or prominent of the tails on the hindwings of swallowtails. The larva eats a variety of broad leaf plants. The adults are swift erratic fliers that usually don’t fly far so they rarely migrate. Adults usually rest with their wings closed and usually bask with wings closed and sideways to the sun.
Here are two interesting facts:
Mating among the Hairstreaks occurs only in the afternoon or early evening in many species. If a mating pair is disturbed, the female usually flies off carrying the hanging male.
Hairstreak larvae that usually eat the leaves of shrubs or trees usually overwinter as eggs. The larvae that eat herbs or succulents usually overwinter as chrysalis (pupae).
- Coral Hairstreak (Satyrium titus)
- Banded Hairstreak (Satyr calanus) – one of the most common and widespread
- Brown Elfin (Callophrys [=Decisuphagus] augustinus
- Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus)
Blue butterflies occur worldwide with many species in North America and Eurasia. There are 32 species in North America. Males are usually blue and females usually brown with some blue. Blue butterfly larvae eat plants of the leguminosae (legume) family. All the adults sip flower nectar.
The larva or pupae (chrysalis) usually hibernate overwinter but in two species the eggs hibernate. Blue have weak, fluttering flight. But even with the weak flight several Blues migrate. Blues rests with their wings closed and bask with their wings spread open. Blue also rub their hind wings together like other Gossamer butterflies.
During the mating season, male Blues patrol to find females. When mating pairs are disturbed, the male usually fly away with the female hanging on, the opposite of Hairstreaks.
- Eastern-tiles Blue (Everes comyntas)
- Spring Azures (Celastrina ladon/spp.)
Please feel free to comment, share a resource or ask and question in the comments below.
Links to other posts and websites in this Series
Links to other posts and websites
North American Butterfly Association http://www.naba.org/
Butterflies and Moths of North America: Collecting and Sharing Data about Lepidoptera – link to photos http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/taxonomy
Regional Checklist’s – for around the North and South America and the Caribbeanhttp://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/checklists
Hosts: The Hostplant Database http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/research/projects/hostplants/
Butterflies of the East Coast by Rick Cech and Guy Tudor
Butterfly Photographer’s Handbook by William B. Folsom
Caterpillars in the Field and Garden: A Field Guide to the Butterfly Caterpillars of North America – covers western caterpillars
Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner
Caterpillars of Western North America – I couldn’t find book that covered caterpillars of the western part of North America
Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars of North America by Amy Barlett Wright (suitable for use with kids)
Peterson’s Guide to Eastern Butterflies by Paul A. Opler and Vichai Malikul
Peterson First Guide to Butterflies and Moths by Paul A. Opler (suitable for use with kids)