Frontyard Visitor: The Gulf Fritillary


Wednesday it rained. Thursday it rained. Saturday, it rained again.

Right there’s some news. Even though the rain didn’t amount to much — I’d guess just an inch or so here in Berkeley for all three “storms” — that was the most concentrated precipitation we’ve had since April, I’d guess. Today (Sunday) was clear, and that after avoiding even looking at the yard for a long time — the front “lawn” has not been watered in several seasons and looks worse than dead — I thought I’d taken advantage of the warm, dry weather and clean things up a little.

One of my chores was to cut down the mostly dead stalks of our September-blooming sunflowers (Helianthus salicifolius). I did that, then picked up the whole bundle of stalks to stuff in our green can (the one for “yard waste). As I started to push the stuff into the can, I realized there was a beautiful orange butterfly tangled up in the mass of dead stems and leaves. I thought it was dead, but then it moved. So I pulled stalks out of the can to give it more space to wriggle free. It quickly extricated itself. I ran for my camera, but it flew before I could get a shot.

I ran and grabbed my camera and followed it for a few minutes down the block. The undersides of the butterfly’s wings are gorgeous — “spangled in iridescent silver,” as one description I found puts it. I couldn’t manage to get a clear shot of the undersides, though.

Kate went online to make the identification: a Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae). The Bay Area is about as far north as these get in California, though they have been seen recently in the Davis and Sacramento areas. Here are a couple links with details:

The name “Gulf fritillary”: Well, “Gulf” comes from their association with areas bordering the Gulf of Mexico. And “fritillary”? A U.S. Forest Service “pollinator of the month” page explains:

The common name comes from a Latin word, fritillus, which means chessboard or dice box. Fritillary is also the name of a flower with an interesting checkered pattern; it is obvious that both the flower and the butterfly get their common name because of such pattern. Another name for these handsome butterflies is silverspots because of the metallic markings on their wings undersides. It is possible that this pattern, similar to a leopard’s spots, serves as camouflage when they are resting in places of dappled sun and shade spots.

Getting in further over my head: It should be noted that the Gulf fritillary is a member of the same butterfly subfamily, Nymphalidae (brush-footed butterflies) but a different tribe (Heliconiini) from the rest of the fritillaries (Argynnini). I didn’t know butterflies had tribes. And that’s as far as I’m going to take the fritillary story for this evening.

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