Small tortoiseshell

A small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), fresh out of hibernation and looking rather worse for wear.

This battered adult 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.

[1] A picture of a newly hatched small tortoiseshell feeding on our copious ragwort in September; [2] a detail of the damaged forewing of this butterfly, photographed in the reserve in late March .

Once a new butterfly’s wings have dried, they are dead tissue, like our hair or nails, but unlike hair and nails 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 in Simpsons..

All pictures taken in the reserve by Clive Knight

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