|Sara Longwing Butterfly – Heliconius sara |
Captive live butterflies photographed at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago
Butterfly Main | Skippers | Butterfly Index
The longwing butterflies have unusually long lifespans and high fecundity rates, which largely result from their augmented diet. Instead of surviving on food stores from the larval stage or solely sipping flower nectar, adult longwing butterflies are avid pollen eaters. These trait make them eminently suitable for butterfly farming and butterfly gardening. Also, Adult Longwings may live for several months, much longer than most butterflies.
The longwing butterflies are also known as Heliconians. They are brightly colored butterflies with long forewings. Once placed in their own family, they are now considered closely related to the fritillaries. Larvae of most longwings feed on passion vines, and this host plant imparts noxious chemicals to the larvae which are carried over to the adult butterflies. This relationship is identical to the monarch butterflies' reliance on its host plant, milkweed, for defense. Predators find these chemicals distasteful and avoid eating the butterflies.
Within the butterfly habitat at the Notebaert Nature Museum resides a family of butterflies called Longwings (Heliconius). During the day, these active butterflies entertain guests as they fly from flower to flower but little do guests know that each evening, the Longwings participate in another fascinating behavior known as communal roosting.
Circadian communal roosting in butterflies occurs when a number of butterflies gather to rest for the night, typically on a single branch. These communal roosters can be quite numerous and can consist of single or a variety of species. Each evening, the air around the roosting site fills with butterflies as they fly back and forth and work to find an open spot on the roost. The whole process takes about an hour to complete because the new arrivals tend to agitate the butterflies that perched earlier. Unless the roosting site is disturbed, the same butterflies will visit that spot night after night. Strength in numbers is one of the benefits of communal roosting for Longwings. Predators dislike the taste of Longwing butterflies, so if a predator eats from the roost it will quickly learn not to do it again, protecting the group.
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Order Lepidoptera, which contains both butterflies and moths, includes at least 125,000 known species including 12,000 in North America. Butterflies are revered for their brightly colored wings and pleasing association with fair weather and flowers.