The Nature Writers of Texas

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Monday, June 16, 2003

Zebra Heliconian
Photo © 2003 Ro Wauer

Zebras Provide a Great Welcome Home!
Ro Wauer, June 16, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

After a trip to Lubbock to give a talk on "Naturalist's Big Bend" to the Llano Estacado Audubon Society, and with stops to see butterflies en route up and back, I found the rarest of all back home in my own yard. In fact, a zebra heliconian was the first butterfly found that next morning. And as I watching that gorgeous creature, two others appeared as if by magic. This sighting is especially interesting because none were seen in my yard at all the last couple years. They last appeared there two years ago.

Now, for many of my naturalist friends, who think zebras only apply to the striped horse of the African plains, this zebra is a tropical butterfly that is fairly common at certain localities to the south. For example, they can almost always to found at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. But zebras sometimes stray northward by early summer. It has been recorded as far north as Colorado and Kansas, and as far west as southeastern Arizona. So, finding zebras in Victoria is not totally unexpected, but seeing one of these gorgeous, long-winged butterflies close-up and personal in your own yard is pretty exciting.

Zebra heliconians, or sometimes referred to as zebra longwings, have a wingspan of about 3 inches. They are easy to identify because of their very distinct wing pattern of yellow stripes on a black background. They also possess a series of yellow dots across the hindwings, with a rosy pink patch at each tip. No other butterfly looks even close. And the zebra's flight is also distinct. Their flight usually is slow and fluttering, with considerable sailing and drifting. When disturbed, however, they can swiftly dart to safety.

My zebras starting nectaring on butterfly plant (Buddelia sp.) flowers. They would nectar awhile and they fly out to circle or to wander down the edge of my brushy yard. But they soon wandered back to again feed on the Buddelia flowers. Zebras first gather minute amounts of pollen on the knobby tips of the proboscis that they dissolve with a fluid; it is then able to drink that liquid to obtain nutrients in the usual manner.

Zebras are considered to be among the most intelligent of all our butterflies. Males and females roost together in low shrubbery each evening, sometimes (especially in the Tropics) in clusters of 60 to 70 individuals. And in mating, the male is attracted to the female pupae by scent. According to researchers, the male is able to open the chrysalis with his abdomen just before emergence, and he mates with the still unreleased female. He then deposits a repellent pheromone on the tip of the female's abdomen, which repels other males and thereby prevents her from mating again.

The female, once she emerges and begins to fly, lays a few eggs each day over a period of several weeks or months. She may deposit up to one thousand eggs, depending upon an adequate diet of nutrients. The average life span of a zebra heliconian is usually less than four months. During that time she usually stays within a few hundred yards of its home territory. But each successive brood may gradually move northward, so that products of the Lower Rio Grande Valley breeders can begin to appear along the central Gulf Coast in June or July.

The closely related Julia heliconian, with a similar range and behavior, can also be found in the Coastal Bend on occasion. It too is a long-winged butterfly, but rather than being banded black-and-yellow, it is all orange color. Males are brighter orange than the females, but both possess brownish bands and smudges on the underside on their wings.

Zebra and julia host plants, species that provide food for their larvae, are limited to passion flowers. Since these plants are native throughout much of the state, there is a chance that zebras and julias can colonize local sites in Texas, weather permitting. Finding three zebras at once suggests that there may be a colony of zebras in the area. Whether my zebras are only visitors or will reproduce and stay around all summer is still a question. But whatever happens, they are most welcome!


At 2:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just curious about the Zebra Longwing in its caterpillar form, if you know. Do they bite? Are they poisonous? Do the black spines on the older caterpillars hurt to the touch? How many days do they stay in their spiny white-and-black form before they begin wrapping themselves in their chrysalis? Thanks for any info!

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