by Steven J. Cary
The Brushfoots (Nymphalidae). This family is our second richest in terms of number of species and perhaps the most variable in terms of sizes, colors, patterns and behaviors. Despite the obvious differences in wing morphology, members all share a unifying structural character: on adults, the forelegs are reduced to tiny, brush-like structures, leaving only four functional legs. Many of our most familiar butterflies are members of this family. Pursuant to Pelham’s (2019) catalog, we have ~100 species in ten subfamilies.
Satyrs and Wood-Nymphs (Nymphalidae: Satyrinae). Within the large family of brush-footed butterflies, what sets this subfamily apart? Larvae of these tan, brown and black butterflies specialize on eating grasses and sedges. We have 17 species, some in our harshest habitats. Most perch and bask with their wings folded. In that posture, most are the size of a quarter or half-dollar.
- Common Ringlet (Coenonympha tullia)
- Nabokov’s Satyr (Cyllopsis pyracmon)
- Canyonland Satyr (Cyllopsis pertepida)
- Red Satyr (Cissia rubricata)
- Red-bordered Satyr (Gyrocheilus patrobas)
- Common Wood-nymph (Cercyonis pegala)
- Mead’s Wood-nymph (Cercyonis meadii)
- Great Basin Wood-nymph (Cercyonis sthenele)
- Small Wood-nymph (Cercyonis oetus)
- Magdalena Alpine (Erebia magdalena)
- Common Alpine (Erebia epipsodea)
- Uhler’s Arctic (Oeneis uhleri)
- Riding’s Satyr (Oeneis ridingsii)
- Melissa Arctic (Oeneis melissa)
- Polixenes Arctic (Oeneis polixenes)
- Chryxus Arctic (Oeneis chryxus)
- Alberta Arctic (Oeneis alberta)
Coenonympha tullia (Muller) Common Ringlet (updated January 22, 2021)
Description. This thumbnail-sized species is bright tawny above. There is a prominent eyespot at the FW apex. Undersides are light ochre with hoary accents. The ventral hindwing has 0 to 6 eyespots, variably developed. Range and Habitat. Common Ringlets live in temperate, arctic and subarctic North America, from Alaska to Newfoundland and south to California, New Mexico, the Great Lakes and New York. In our state it dwells on higher grassy mesas and mountains (counties: Be,Ca,Co,LA,Mo,RA,Sv,SJ,SM,Ta,To,Va), 7000 to 11,000′. Life History. Females oviposit on or near several grasses and sedges, including Stipa comata, Poa pratensis, Festuca arizonica, F. idahoensis, Bouteloua gracilis (all Poaceae), and Carex pennsylvanica heliophila (Cyperaceae) (Scott 1992). Partially grown larvae overwinter. Flight. We have one summer flight spanning April 24(!) to August 8, peaking in June and July. Adults fly near the ground and feed at nectar and wet soil. Comments. Most of our populations are the ‘Ochre’ Ringlet, Rocky Mountain subspecies Coenonympha tullia ochracea (W. H. Edwards), whose ventral hindwing ocelli very from few to absent. The population on the Mogollon Rim (Ca) is subspecies Coenonympha tullia. subfusca (Barnes and Benjamin), which consistently has six prominent, yellow-ringed, ventral hindwing ocelli.
Cyllopsis pyracmon (Butler) Nabokov’s Satyr (updated October 31, 2020)
Description. Two ebony jewel boxes decorate the ventral hindwing of this and the next species, which are the size of a quarter with wings folded. On Nabokov’s Satyr, the ventral hindwing postmedian line is straight all the way to the costa and does not touch the silver-gray patch around the jewel boxes. Range and Habitat. Cyllopsis pyracmon is a Mexican species whose range extends north to southeast and (maybe) southwest New Mexico. It has not yet been found here, but it may very well live in the New Mexico Bootheel of Hidalgo County. Look for it in canyons at the south end of the Peloncillo Mountains, 4500 to 6500′ elevation. Life History. Larvae eat Muhlenbergia emersleyi (Poaceae) in Arizona. Flight. Nabokov’s Satyr is bivoltine: the first brood flies in June; the second in September – October. Adults dodge among bunchgrasses on shrubby, shady canyon bottoms. Comments. New Mexico would have subspecies Cyllopsis pyracmon henshawi (W. H. Edwards). Historically, henshawi and pyracmon were treated as separate species (e.g., Bailowitz and Brock, 1991), but they share the same range, hostplant and genitalia and are now considered seasonal forms of the same bug. Old reports from farther north in New Mexico are incorrect and reflect decades of taxonomic confusion in this genus.
Cyllopsis pertepida (Dyar) Canyonland Satyr (updated January 22, 2021)
Description. This, our more widespread “jewel-box” satyr, has a ventral hindwing postmedian line that is curved or irregular, disappearing near the hindwing apex. Upper sides are rusty brown. Range and Habitat. Canyonland Satyr lives in much of the southwest US and Mexico. It prefers Upper Sonoran and Transition Zone grassy canyons and savannas in most of New Mexico (all counties but Cu,DB,Le,Ro,Qu,Va), 4600 to 8900′. Life History. Larvae eat unknown grasses, then overwinter partially grown. Flight. Canyonland Satyrs are bivoltine in northern New Mexico, with peak numers in June and August. Three broods fly in southern New Mexico, peaking in May, July and October. Extreme dates are April 16 and October 23. Adults flop among canyon-side grasses and bushes. Comments. Snow (1883) collected this species in the Magdalena Mountains (So) in 1881, but misidentified it as Cyllopsis henshawi. Subspecies Cyllopsis pertepida dorothea (Nabokov) prevails in most of New Mexico. Subspecies Cyllopsis pertepida maniola (Nabokov) has a gray ventral hindwing and may enter our far southwest corner (Hi). Subspecies Cyllopsis pertepida avicula (Nabokov) has a reddish ventral hindwing and may enter our southeast corner (DA,Ed). Vladimir Nabokov, renown author and lepidopterist, was particularly fond of this species, studied it extensively, and his 1943 taxonomic arrangement survives to this day.
Cissia rubricata (W. H. Edwards) Red Satyr (updated January 23, 2021))
Description. Red Satyr has a gray-brown underside crossed by a distal band with three (one forewing, two hindwing) eyespots and small silver spots, variably expressed. Wing uppersides have a red flush. Range and Habitat. This quarter-sized Mexican satyr breeds north to AZ, NM, OK and TX. In New Mexico it lives in Upper Sonoran grasslands in southern and eastern areas, generally below 6000’ but straying as high as 8000′. Life History. Grasses (Poaceae) are hosts. Poa secunda is used in Arizona (Bailowitz and Brock 1991). Half-grown larvae hibernate. Flight. Red Satyrs are univoltine. In east-central counties it flies June 15 to July 31. In southern counties, an extended flight (perhaps two broods) spans April 29 to August 28, peaking in June to July. Adults dodge among grasses. Comments. This butterfly was recently removed from the genus Megisto and placed in Cissia (Pelham 2019). The nominate subspecies occupies eastern New Mexico (counties: Cu,Gu,Ha,Li,Mo,Ot,Qu,SM,Un); it has extensive dorsal forewing red, but weak ventral ocelli. The Trans-Pecos area (counties: Ch,DA,Ed) has vivid Cissia rubricata smithorum (Wind), whose dorsal red is extensive and vibrant, while ventral ocelli are resplendent. Subdued Cissia rubricata cheneyorum (R. Chermock) lives west of the Rio Grande (counties: Ca,Gr,Hi,Lu,Si,So); dorsal red is reduced and ventral ocelli are modestly expressed. Boundaries between these subspecific forms are not well understood. The Los Angeles County Museum has a specimen of C. r. cheneyorum from Silver City, captured 6 June 1949 by a young Harrison Schmitt, later an astronaut and U. S. Senator representing New Mexico.
Gyrocheilus patrobas (Hewitson) Red-Bordered Satyr (updated January 23, 2021)
Description. Gyrocheilus patrobas is a large, dark species with scalloped wing margins. There is nothing else like it in New Mexico. The HW has a marginal band that is red above and striated pink below. The forewing has a submarginal row of small white dots. Range and Habitat. Red-Bordered Satyrs inhabit Transition and Upper Sonoran Zone savannas in the Mexican Sierra Madre north to the Mogollon Rim in Arizona and New Mexico. In our state it prefers open piñon-juniper woodlands in our southwest uplands (counties: Ca,Gr,Hi,Lu,Si), 4500 to 8200′. Life History. Muhlenbergia emersleyi (Poaceae) is a larval host in southeast Arizona (Bailowitz and Brock 1991). Flight. Red-Bordered Satyrs have one generation per year, flying in late summer to early autumn. New Mexico observations fall between late August and October 14, making it one of our latest-emerging univoltine butterflies. Adults bob and weave deceptively among grasses and shrubs, often near edges of riparian canyons. They come to nectar and wet sand. Comments. Subspecies Gyrocheilus patrobas tritonia (W. H. Edwards) lives in our area. Our first reports of this Sierra Madrean butterfly were made by John Hubbard in the Pinos Altos Mountains (Gr) in the late 1950s.
Cercyonis pegala (Fabricius) Common Wood-Nymph (updated January 23, 2021)
Description. Common Wood-Nymph is large and brown with two prominent eyespots on the forewing above and below. Ventral hindwings have a submarginal row of eyespots set against a background of fine scrollwork. Range and Habitat. From coast to coast and from southern Canada to California, New Mexico, Texas and Florida, Cercyonis pegala is a frequent sight in meadows, prairies and savannas. In northern New Mexico it lives in Upper Sonoran Zone habitats (counties: Be,Ca,Co,Cu,Gr,Gu,Ha,LA,Mo,Qu,RA,Ro,Sv,SJ,SM,SF,Ta,To,Un,Va), 5000 to 7400′. Life History. Eggs hatch in summer, then diapause through winter before eating grasses such as Poa pratensis, Bromus inermis and Agropyron dasystachyum and sedges like Carex praegracilis. Flight. Common Wood-Nymphs are univoltine with peak flight in July and August. Records fall between May 21 and September 10. Adults appear to lurch awkwardly through grasses and shrubs; they eat plant sap and nectar. Comments. Many subspecies are described. The race in our central mountain chain has somewhat subdued underside markings and is Cercyonis pegala boopis (Behr). Our northeastern plains populations are more vividly marked including ventral hindwing ocelli and forewing eyespots set in a yellow patch, as in subspecies Cercyonis pegala texana (W. H. Edwards). Intermediates are common. A specimen collected by Winslow Howard c. 1882 (Cockerell 1899) showed that southwest New Mexico (Gr) once had a population of Common Wood-Nymph as well, but there are no subsequent reports from that area.
Cercyonis meadii (W. H. Edwards) Mead’s Wood-Nymph (updated January 23, 2021)
Description. Mead’s Wood-Nymph has diagnostic ember-red overscaling on the forewing, above and below. Range and Habitat. Cercyonis meadii lives in or near the Cordilleran chain from Montana and North Dakota south to northern Mexico and west Texas. Though widespread, it is never common and seems most attached to blue grama savannas showing minimal human influence. Mead’s Wood-Nymph prefers piñon-juniper savannas in New Mexico (counties: Be,Ca,DA,Ed,Gr,Hi,RA,Sv,SJ,So,Ta,To,Un), generally 4600 to 7000′ elevation. Life History. Larvae eat blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis; Poaceae). Flight. Cercyonis meadii is univoltine with adults about from July 14 to September 2 in northern New Mexico, and from June 30 to October 6 in southern New Mexico. Adults fly in grassy sage flats or open, grassy woodlands, coming readily to nectar. Comments. Most New Mexico populations fit best with subspecies Cercyonis meadii alamosa T. Emmel and J. Emmel, which has a frosting of white scales on the ventral hindwing. Cercyonis meadii damei W. Barnes and Benjamin prevails in southern New Mexico. It is paler underneath with particularly prominent ventral hindwing eyespots. Mead’s Wood-Nymphs in northwest New Mexico show signs of hybridization with Cercyonis sthenele (next species).
Cercyonis sthenele (Boisduval) Great Basin Wood-Nymph (updated March 24, 2021)
Description. Cercyonis sthenele is characterized by medium size and medium brown to pale brown color with two prominent forewing ocelli. Ventral hindwing has distinctive submarginal ocelli that are black with white pupils. Range and Habitat. This butterfly lives in Great Basin deserts and chaparral west to California and Baja. It is an Upper Sonoran to Transition Zone insect barely reaching into our northwest corner on the Navajo Nation (counties: SJ), 5500 to 7200′. Reports from the Pinos Altos Mountains (Gr) are unsubstantiated (Zimmerman 2001). Life History. Larvae eat unknown grasses. Flight. Great Basin Wood-Nymphs have one generation per year that is on the wing from July into September, peaking in August. Comments. GBWs that enter New Mexico are part of subspecies Cercyonis sthenele paulus (W. H. Edwards). Individuals with a forewing red flush turn up with enough regularity to suggest past or ongoing interbreeding with Cercyonis meadii. Richard Holland made the first New Mexico observation on 28 July 1974 near Toadlena (SJ).
Cercyonis oetus (Boisduval) Small Wood-Nymph (updated January 23, 2021)
Description. This, our smallest Cercyonis, is dark brown above and below, with two yellow-ringed ocelli in the forewing postmedian region. Ventral hindwing eyespots are not prominent. Range and Habitat. Cercyonis oetus is native to Transition and Canadian Zone grasslands of western North America, from British Columbia to Saskatchewan and south in the mountains to California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. Here, it occupies grasslands and savannas in northern and upland areas (counties: Be,Ca,Co,Li,LA,Mo,Ot,RA,Sv,SJ,SM,SF,So,Ta,To,Un), generally 6500 to 10,200′. Life History. Larvae eat grasses (Poaceae). Festuca idahoensis, a host in western Colorado, is widespread in New Mexico mountains and is a likely host here. Mature larvae crawl up grass stems and pupate there. Flight. Small Wood-Nymph has one annual generation. Adults fly between June 16 and September 26, peaking in July and August. Adults nectar at late summer flowers in pine forest openings. Comments. Our populations belong to subspecies Cercyonis oetus charon (W. H. Edwards), which is the typical, dark, Rocky Mountain race.
Erebia magdalena Strecker Magdalena Alpine
Description. Magdalena is flat black-brown, everywhere. It is so black that it is hard to photograph; it absorbs so much light that normally-exposed film just shows a void where the butterfly would be! Range and Habitat. Magdalena is a tundra insect whose colonies in the higher Rocky Mountains are relicts from Pleistocene Ice Ages. Magdalenas are more common in AK and Siberia. In NM, they live above treeline in talus near Wheeler Pk. and State Line Pk. (counties: Ta), above 11,500′. Life History. Scott (1992) reported that females place eggs on rocks. Larvae probably eat grasses (Poaceae) and sedges (Cyperaceae) that grow in the scree. Winter is passed by larvae. Flight. A complete life cycle takes two years due to the short growing season. Adults fly between July 2 and July 24. Adults perch on boulders, nectar, and fly across scree slopes. Their black wings are ideal for thermoregulation in their cold habitat. Comments. Our colonies belong to the nominate subspecies. More colonies may exist in New Mexico, but access challenges and unfavorable weather contribute to a slow learning curve for this species. Culturally speaking, Magdalena has a spiritual, mystical quality, perhaps it’s the snowy, thin-air, mist-shrouded high peak habitat, which Bob Pyle crystallized so well in his recent book Magdalena Mountain.
Erebia epipsodea Butler Common Alpine (updated January 23, 2021)
Description. Common Alpines are of medium size. Submarginal black eyespots are set within broad reddish patches against dark brown ground color on all wing surfaces. Range and Habitat. Erebia epipsodea lives in the western North American cordillera from Alaska south to Washington and Wyoming. Relict populations also thrive in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico. It inhabits moist, grassy meadows in the higher mountains of north-central New Mexico (counties: Co,Mo,RA,SM,SF,Ta), usually 8500 to 12,500′. Life History. Larval hosts are grasses (Poaceae) and sedges (Cyperaceae). Poa pratensis, Koeleria macrantha, Carex pennsylvanica heliophila and Danthonia parryi are reported as hosts by Scott (1992) for central Colorado and are likely hosts in New Mexico. Larvae hibernate. Flight. NM records indicate one summer flight each year, peaking in July. Extreme dates are June 6 and August 23. Adults cavort in moist mountain meadows, feeding at flowers and at moist earth. Comments. Our colonies are part of the nominate race that is typical of the central Rocky Mountains.
Oeneis uhleri (Reakirt) Uhler’s Arctic (updated July 22, 2021)
Description. Uhler’s Arctic resembles Chryxus Arctic, but it can be separated with practice. It is smaller and whiter on the underside, which only rarely has Chryxus’ postmedian band. The forewing underside lacks the ‘bird beak’ of Oeneis chryxus. Ventral eyespots vary in development. Dorsal veins are dark on the tawny ground color. Range and Habitat. Uhler’s lives in Alaska, the Yukon and the northern Great Plains, with colonies in the central Rockies of Wyoming and Colorado. It is known from only a few New Mexico colonies, perhaps because of confusion with similar Chryxus. Here, it inhabits Transition and Canadian Zone grassy slopes (counties: Co,RA,Ta) between 8,300 and 12,700′. Life History. In southern Colorado, and probably in New Mexico, larvae prefer Festuca idahoensis (Scott 1992). Koeleria macrantha also may be used (both Poaceae). Winter is passed by larvae. Flight. Oeneis uhleri may be univoltine or biennial. Either way, adults fly in early summer. Our observations fall between May 31 and July 10. Look for them perching in grass clumps, flying low over grassy ridges, or sipping at moist soil. Comments. Our populations belong to the nominate race.
Oeneis (Neominois) ridingsii (W. H. Edwards) Ridings’ Arctic (updated January 24, 2021)
Description. Ridings’ Satyr is translucent, pale tan-gray. Submarginal bands of elongated white patches mark forewing and hindwing, above and below. The forewing has two prominent black eyespots within pale submarginal areas. Range and Habitat. Oeneis ridingsii is native to cold steppe grasslands from the Sierra Nevada east to the Front Range and north to Saskatchewan. In New Mexico it likes grassy pine savannas (counties: Ca,Ci,Co,Gu,Li,MK,Mo,RA,SM,Ta,Un), 6300 to 9200′. Life History. The main host for this species seems to be Bouteloua gracilis, but Agropyron longifolius, Koeleria macrantha and Stipa comata also may be used (all Poaceae). Winter is passed by half-grown larvae. Flight. This butterfly is univoltine in New Mexico. Records span May 31 to July 26, but most adults are seen in June. Flying weakly and jerkily near the ground, Oeneis ridingsii males patrol grassy knolls for females. Comments. Nominate Oeneis ridingsii ridingsii flies in north-central and northeast New Mexico. Oeneis ridingsii neomexicanus Austin was described from the Ft. Wingate area (MK). The type series, in the Richard Holland collection and now at Colorado State University, is variable and seems transitional between the nominate race and subspecies Oeneis ridingsii dionysus Scudder to the west. There is a lone, disjunct observation of this species near Carrizo Peak (Li).
Oeneis melissa (Fabricius) Melissa Arctic (updated January 24, 2021)
Description. On Melissa Arctic, the translucent ventral hindwing is mottled to resemble lichens, with no eyespots or (usually) banding. Uniform mottling covers the entire hindwing in females, but males have dark basal mottling and lighter distal mottling. Range and Habitat. Mottled Arctics live across arctic Canada and Alaska, south in the east to New Hampshire. Pleistocene relict colonies occupy high peaks of the central Rockies south to New Mexico. Here it lives above treeline on the barest peaks and ridges (counties: Mo,RA,SF,Ta) above 11,200′. Life History. Eggs are laid on host sedges or nearby rocks. Carex rupestris drummondiana (Cyperaceae) is used in central Colorado (Scott 1992). Larvae hibernate and take two years to mature. Flight. New Mexico records fall between June 19 and July 24, confirming a single early-summer flight. Adults fly near the ground on windy tundra ridges. When basking or perched, they blend in with lichen-covered rocks. Comments. We have Rocky Mountain subspecies Oeneis melissa lucilla W. Barnes and McDunnough. Butterflying our high peaks is complicated by storms that can bring clouds, lightning, rain and hail by noon on summer days. Reaching these remote locations before noon requires planning, conditioning, and effort – a good project for energetic, young lepidopterists!
Oeneis polixenes (Fabricius) Polixenes Arctic (updated January 24, 2021)
Description. Polixenes Arctic has a dark band across the median area, not unlike Chryxus Arctic. Range and Habitat. Polixenes Arctics have stronger polar affinities than our other Arctics. They occur from Alaska east to Baffin Island and Newfoundland, south to Maine and south in the Rockies in small pockets to Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. They occupy very high tundra in New Mexico (counties: Mo,RA,SF,Ta), above 12,400’. They are known from Wheeler Peak, Truchas Peaks and Santa Fe Baldy. Life History. Larvae eat grasses (Poaceae) and sedges (Cyperaceae), like Carex rupestris drummondiana, Festuca brachyphylla coloradensis and Helictotrichon mortonianum. Larvae overwinter. Flight. Polixenes is biennial, but existence of even- and odd-year cohorts at a given site ensures a flight each summer. New Mexico records span June 26 to July 24. Adults patrol exposed ridges above timberline and perch in vegetation between the rocks. Comments. Rocky Mountain subspecies Oeneis polixenes brucei (W. H. Edwards) occurs in our area. Oeneis polixenes was found on Santa Fe Baldy (SF) in July 1935 by Drs. Whitmer and Klots. The latter gentleman went on to author the first field guide to the butterflies of eastern North America in 1951.
Oeneis chryxus (Doubleday & Hewitson) Chryxus Arctic (updated January 24, 2021)
Description. Chryxus is tawny orange above with a few dark eyespots. Underneath, a pattern of white, tan and gray mimics lichen-covered rocks, with a dark median band. The forewing ventrum has postmedian marks resemble a bird’s head in profile, bean and all. Range and Habitat. Chryxus occupies mountains of western North America, subarctic Canada and the Great Lakes region. It is the second most widespread arctic in New Mexico (counties: Co,LA,Mo,RA,Sv,SM,SF,So,Ta), preferring Canadian and Hudsonian Zone meadows near treeline, 8000 to 12,700′. Life History. Scott (1992) gave sedges (Cyperaceae) as the primary larval hosts in the Rockies. Of the hosts he listed for Colorado, Carex geophila and C. pennsylvanica heliophila also grow in New Mexico. Chryxus larvae overwinter. Flight. Chryxus is biennial, with two years required for larval maturation. Our records indicate flight between May 16 and July 28, mostly in June. Males establish ridgetop perches. Adults nectar, fly across alpine meadows, and are well-disguised when perched on the ground. Comments. We have the nominate race in north-central New Mexico. A disjunct, relict colony in the San Mateo Mountains (So) was recently described as subspecies Oeneis chryxus socorro R. Holland.
Oeneis alberta Elwes Alberta Arctic (updated January 24, 2021)
Description. Ferris and Brown (1980) accurately described this species as “reminiscent of a pale, much grayed, miniature edition of O. chryxus.” Range and Habitat. Alberta Arctics are widespread across the Canadian Plains provinces as well as adjacent Montana and North Dakota. South from there, however, only isolated and disjunct colonies occur as far as Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Alberta inhabits windswept Canadian Zone and higher grasslands in our state (counties: Ca,Co,Un), 8200′ to 10,000’ elevation. Life History. Larvae seem to feed exclusively on bunchgrasses in the genus Festuca (Poaceae). Festuca idahoensis and Festuca arizonica are the likely hosts in northeast New Mexico. Flight. Oeneis alberta is univoltine (possibly biennial) with adults about in late spring. Our records indicate peak flight in May, shortly after snow disappears from its slow-to-warm habitat. Extreme observation dates are May 3 and June 5. Adults fly near the ground among bunchgrasses; they are not known to nectar. Comments. Grassy, windswept mesas and volcanic peaks north and east of Raton (Co,Un) are home to subspecies Oeneis alberta capulinensis F. M. Brown. This rather variable race (see the three images below) was discovered on Capulin Volcano (Un) in 1969 by well-known, highly respected and much-loved Rocky Mountain lepidopterist F. Martin Brown. The colony at the type locality is now thought by this author to be extirpated. A disjunct colony of Alberta also occurs in the Mogollon Mountains (Ca); it belongs to subspecies Oeneis alberta daura (Strecker), the palest of all races. A colony of that variety also occurs on Escudilla Mountain in Greenlee Co., Arizona.