Small tortoiseshell

Fresh out of hibernation, a small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), photographed by Clive Knight in the reserve on Monday.

This battered and worn butterfly is already at least six months old. A second brood adult, it will have emerged from its pupa at the very latest in September, in time to feed on the reserve’s late blooming flowers in preparation for hibernation. Clive photographed just such a newly emerged small tortoiseshell [1] back in September of last year, feeding on late flowering ragwort; it could even be the same butterfly.

[1] Clive Knight’s September 2021 picture of a pristine, newly hatched adult small tortoiseshell [2] a detail of the damaged forewing of the butterfly Clive photographed this week.

Once a new butterfly’s wings have dried, they are dead tissue, like our hair or nails, but they can’t regrow or be repaired. The wings are covered with tiny scales and as the butterfly flies, friction with the air and collisions with the wider environment rub the scales off so that the wings just wear out over time. The longer a butterfly lives and the further it flies, the more worn its wings will become.

Butterflies enter a torpid state in hibernation, in which they can be attacked by spiders, mice or birds. If you look carefully, you can see that the forewing of this small tortoiseshell has been badly torn [2] by either a predator or a collision with something sharp such as a thorn.

Research has shown that damage to the leading edge of a butterfly’s forewing can seriously affect its ability to fly but that damage to the wing’s margin has no detectable effect on its flight. So it is possible that despite its worn and torn wings this small tortoiseshell will be able to feed, find a mate and contribute to the next generation of caterpillars among the stinging nettles.

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