Butterflies of New Mexico: The Gossamerwings I: The Coppers (Lycaenidae: Lycaeninae)

by Steven J. Cary (updated November 28, 2020)

The Gossamerwings (Lycaenidae). New Mexico has more than 50 Lycaenids in three subfamilies: Coppers, Hairstreaks and Blues. All are small, but many have bright colors or intricate patterns. Because of narrow ecological needs, finding members of this group can be both challenging and rewarding. During immature stages, most Lycaenids exhibit mutualistic relationships with ants, called myrmecophily.

Coppers (Lycaenidae: Lycaeninae). Most coppers are brilliantly colored. New Mexico has seven species, all restricted to the northern half of the state. They range from the widespread Purplish Copper to alpine specialists such as the Lustrous Copper.


Top↑

Lycaena cupreus (W. H. Edwards)         Lustrous Copper

Description. Male Lustrous Coppers are metallic orange-red above with dark edges and postmedian dark spots; females are more subdued, but with a similar pattern. Undersides of both sexes are silver-gray with heavy black spots and occasional orange overscaling. Range and Habitat. Lycaena cupreus is a resident of Transition to Alpine Zones in the Sierra Nevada and the northern Rocky Mountains. In New Mexico it is a tundra species that frequents talus slopes above 12,000 ft elevation in the Wheeler Peak and Latir Peaks wildernesses, occasionally straying downslope, for example to Twining (counties: Ta). Life History. Various docks (Polygonaceae) serve as hosts: Rumex paucifolius, R. acetosella and R. acetosa are reported; Oxyria digyna may be a principal host in the Rockies. Larvae overwinter. Flight. Lustrous Coppers may be univoltine or biennial. Our paltry handful of records span July 10 to late August. Adults patrol semi-vegetated low pockets in tundra rockslides. Comments. More information is needed about this species in New Mexico. Our populations belong to Rocky Mountains subspecies Lycaena cupreus snowi (W. H. Edwards), honoring University of Kansas Professor Francis Huntington Snow who collected the type specimen in Colorado.

Lustrous Copper female (Lycaena cupreus snowi) below Mt. Sneffels, Ouray Co., CO; June 29, 2018 (photo by Steve Cary).
Lustrous Copper male (Lycaena cupreus snowi) below Mt. Sneffels, Ouray Co., CO; June 29, 2018 (photo by Steve Cary).
Lustrous Copper (Lycaena cupreus snowi) Latir Peaks, Taos Co., NM; July 10, 2010 (photo by Steve Cary).

Top↑

Tharsalea hyllus (Cramer)                              Bronze Copper (updated December 31, 2020)

Description. Larger even than the so-called Great Copper, Bronze Copper is bright orange-brown above with black dots and an orange hindwing submarginal band. Underneath, the hindwing is gray-white with black dots and the same orange submarginal band. Orange invades deeply into the ventral forewing. Range and Habitat. Bronze Coppers are regular marsh and swamp dwellers in the northeast US. Peripheral western colonies dot the prairies east of the Rockies north into Canada and south into northeast New Mexico (counties: Co,SM,Un). Life History. Larvae eat dock (Rumex spp.; Polygonaceae). Western populations are linked to curly dock (Rumex crispus) in disturbed, wet areas. Eggs must be submerged before they will hatch. Flight. In the eastern US the Bronze Copper is largely double-brooded, while western populations vary from univoltine to bivoltine. New Mexico adults fly from June 19 to August 26, probably in two broods. They dart through weedy, wet meadows, perch in tall grasses and go to nectar. Comments. Jane Ruffin discovered our first New Mexico colony in at Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge (Co) in 1996. This species colonizes reservoir edges and seems to profit from human changes in western landscapes (Ferris and Brown 1980).

Bronze Copper (Tharsalea hyllus) Clayton Lake State Park, Union Co., NM; August 18, 1996 (photo by Steve Cary).
Bronze Copper (Tharsalea hyllus) Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge, Colfax Co., NM; August 17, 1996 (photo by Steve Cary).

Top↑

Tharsalea heteronea Boisduval                         Blue Copper (updated January 2, 2021)

Description. Tharsalea heteronea is much like Tharsalea rubidus, but for the dorsal color. Males are bright sky blue; females lack a hindwing orange band. Range and Habitat. Blue Coppers share most of their greater distribution range with Ruddy Coppers: Rocky Mountains, Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada. It is a Transition and Canadian Zone insect in New Mexico, where it lives in our north-central mountains (counties: Co,RA,Sv,Ta), 7200 to 9100′ elevation. Life History. Blue Copper larvae eat various species of wild buckwheat (Eriogonum spp.: Polygonaceae). Jane Ruffin observed oviposition on Eriogonum racemosum 10 miles west of Chama (RA) on 28 July 1999. The egg stage passes the winter. Flight. Blue Coppers go through one generation per year; adults emerge in mid-summer and are on the wing between July 5 and August 23. Larger than any of our true blues (Lycaenidae: Polyommatinae), Blue Coppers patrol and nectar in flowery mountain meadows amid dense stands of the host. Comments. Our populations belong to subspecies Tharsalea heteronea gravenotata Klots. Scott (1986) commented on convergent evolution of Blue Coppers and blues in the genus Euphilotes. Both have blue males, brown females and use wild buckwheats (Eriogonum spp.) to feed larvae.

Blue Copper male (Tharsalea heteronea gravenotata) Angel Fire, Colfax Co., NM; July 21, 2016 (photo by Steve Cary).
Blue Copper female (Tharsalea heteronea gravenotata) Angel Fire, Colfax Co., NM; August 2, 2017 (photo by Steve Cary).
Blue Copper (Tharsalea heteronea gravenotata) Angel Fire, Colfax Co., NM; July 9, 2019 (photo by Steve Cary).
Blue Copper (Tharsalea heteronea gravenotata) August 2000 (photo by Steve Cary).

Top↑

Tharsalea helloides (Boisduval)               Purplish Copper

Description. Male Tharsalea helloides are iridescent purple-brown above; females are flat orange; both have dark spots. Hindwing undersides are tan with dark spots and a crenulate orange band. Adults are smaller than most other coppers. Range and Habitat. Purplish Copper is versatile and widespread. It occurs from Alaska to Baja California and east to the Great Lakes, in life zones from Upper Sonoran to Hudsonian. Here it occurs in streamside habitats, 5000 – 11,000′ (counties: Co,LA,Mo,RA,Sv,SJ,SM,SF,Ta).    Life History. Several Polygonaceae are hosts, including various Rumex spp. and Polygonum spp. New Mexico hosts have not yet been specifically identified. Flight. Purplish Coppers are broadly univoltine, flying June 8 to September 7 above 8000′. They are bivoltine at lower sites, flying May 15 to September 10. Adults fly about hosts seeking nectar and water. Comments. Experts disagree if high altitude Rocky Mountain populations truly are Tharsalea helloides (Scott 1986) or a separate species, Tharsalea dorcas W. Kirby (Ferris and Brown 1980). The two are nearly identical in appearance; differences in voltinism and larval hosts may or may not be taxonomically significant. Reports for both species are lumped here.

Purplish Copper male (Tharsalea helloides) eastern foothills, Jemez Mountains, Los Alamos Co., NM; May 14, 2020 (photo by Marc Bailey).
Purplish Copper female (Tharsalea helloides) Pecos Wilderness, Santa Fe Co., NM; July 14, 2012 (photo by Steve Cary).
Purplish Copper female (left) and male (right) in copula (Tharsalea helloides) Latir Peaks, Taos Co., NM; July 11, 2010 (photo by Steve Cary).

Top↑

Tharsalea rubidus (Behr)                                 Ruddy Copper (updated December 31, 2020)

Description. This may be the flashiest of all New Mexico coppers. Dorsally, male Ruddies are day-glo vermilion with a vague suggestion of dark spots. Females are brown and spotted above, with an orange hindwing border. Undersides are gray-white with bold forewing dark spots and reduced hindwing dark spots. Range and Habitat. Tharsalea rubidus likes Transition or Hudsonian Zone habitats from the Sierra Nevada east to the High Plains and north to Alberta, preferring sage plains, prairies and savannas. There are a few colonies in our north-central mountains (counties: Co,Ra,Ta), usually 7500 to 9400′ elevation. Life History. In the Rockies, larvae eat Polygonaceae such as Oxyria digyna, Polygonum douglasii, or various Rumex spp. It uses Eriogonum jamesii v. jamesii south of Angel Fire (Co). Eggs overwinter. Flight. Our single mid-summer flight spans June 22 to August 26. Adults bask and nectar in alpine meadows having the larval hosts. Comments. Greg Forbes observed the first New Mexico Ruddy Copper at Romero Ranch, 7500′, San Antonio Creek (RA) on 11 July 1968. Our populations belong to subspecies Tharsalea rubidus sirius (W. H. Edwards).

Ruddy Copper male (Tharsalea rubidus) south of Angel Fire, Colfax Co., NM; July 21, 2016 (photo by Steve Cary).
Ruddy Copper female (Tharsalea rubidus) Valle Vidal, Taos Co., NM; August 26, 1999 (photo by Steve Cary).
Ruddy Copper (Tharsalea rubidus) south of Angel Fire, Colfax Co., NM; July 29, 2018 (photo by Steve Cary).

Top↑

Tharsalea dione (Scudder)                               Gray Copper

Description. Gray Copper is larger than most other coppers. It is gray-white below and dark gray above, with dark spots on all wing surfaces. Black-pupiled orange spots decorate forewing and hindwing submargins. Range and Habitat. The Gray Copper occurs throughout the northern Great Plains, extending south as far as Northeast New Mexico (counties: Un). Its limited occurrence here suggests a preference for Upper Sonoran Zone reservoir margins and wet meadows, about 5200′ elevation. Life History. Larvae eat various species of dock, such as Rumex crispus and R. triangulivalvis (Polygonaceae). Specific hosts in New Mexico have not been ascertained. Eggs overwinter. Flight. Gray Copper is univoltine, with adults about in summer. Our two reports are from July 5 and 6. As noted by Ferris and Brown (1980), adults prefer to fly in late afternoon. They come to nectar and perch on or near the host. Comments. This butterfly was first found in New Mexico at Clayton Lake State Park in 1993. More searching in northeast New Mexico may show it to be more widespread.

Gray Copper (Tharsalea dione) Clinton, Henry Co., MO; June 8, 2001 (photo by Steve Cary).

Top↑

Tharsalea arota (Boisduval)                          Tailed Copper

Description. Tailed Copper is the only North American copper with a hindwing tail, making it easy to identify. It has other hairstreak features as well, such as a “false head” at the hindwing tornus. Tharsalea arota males are iridescent purple-brown above with few dark marks, while females are orange above with more extensive dark marks. Range and Habitat. Tailed Coppers inhabit open woodlands from coastal California east across the Great Basin to the Continental Divide in Colorado and New Mexico. Here, Tailed Coppers live in Transition Zone pine savannas in northern and western uplands (counties: Be,Ca,Ci,Co,LA,MK,Mo,RA,Sv,SM?,SF,Ta,To,Un), usually from 6500 to 9500′ elevation. Life History. Larval hostplants are gooseberries (Grossulariaceae). Recorded hosts in the Rockies include Ribes roezlii, R. velutinum, R. leptanthum, R. cereum, R. californicum, R. aureum and R. inerme. Winter is passed in the egg stage. Flight. Tailed coppers are univoltine, flying in mid- to late summer. New Mexico records are confined to the interval between June 23 and September 24 with maximum numbers in July and August. Adults stay close to stands of the host, travelling short distances to nectar at late summer flowers such as asters (Asteraceae) and wild buckwheat (Eriogonum spp.). Comments. Some taxonomists assign our populations to the Great Basin subspecies Tharsalea arota virginiensis (W. H. Edwards), others to the Grand Canyon race Tharsalea arota schellbachi (Tilden).

Tailed Copper (Tharsalea arota) Wild Rivers Recreation Area, Rio Grande del Norte National monument, Taos Co., NM; August 13, 2017 (photo by Steve Cary).
Tailed Copper female (Tharsalea arota) Wild Rivers Rec. Area, Taos Co., NM; August 13, 2017 (photo by Steve Cary).
Tailed Copper male (Tharsalea arota) Pacheco Canyon, Santa Fe Co., NM; June 29, 2017 (photo by Steve Cary).