Butterflies of Britain
Family - HESPERIIDAE
Carterocephalus palaemon, Szalafo-pityerszer, Orseg, Hungary
© Peter Bruce-Jones
There are 15
species. The genus is centred on China, but 3 species reach Europe
Carterocephalus as a member of the Hesperiinae, but the genus
is currently placed in the Heteropterinae due to differences in the
structure of the antennae, palpi and venation. There are only a few
members of the Heteropterinae which occur in the northern
hemisphere. In South America there are many related species in the
genus Dalla - largely montane species
from the Andes; and another similar genus,
Metisella, occurs in the tropics of Africa.
are dark brown with yellow or cream markings. The pattern is
repeated on the underside, but in muted colours.
is known as the Chequered Skipper, but in the USA and Canada it is
usually referred to as the Arctic Skipper or Arctic Skipperling. The
butterfly is found across most of central and northern Europe,
although absent from Spain, Portugal, peninsular Italy and the
Mediterranean coast. Beyond Europe it occurs across much of
temperate Asia to Siberia, China and Japan. It is the only
Carterocephalus species found in North
America where it occurs in California, southern Alaska and across
most of Canada.
Carterocephalus palaemon, Kercaszomor, Hungary
© Peter Bruce-Jones
the Chequered Skipper was once quite widespread, occurring across
most of the central and eastern counties, but it contracted it's
range, partly as a consequence of drainage of the Great Fen, which
led to the large scale conversion of land to agriculture. By the
early 20th century the species was thought to be confined to a few
counties in the east Midlands, and although it remained fairly
common in certain areas until the early 1960's, within a decade
populations at all its English sites had collapsed, and by 1975-76
it had become extinct. Reintroduction trials have taken place since
1990 with varying degrees of success.
butterfly's presence in Scotland was not known until 1942 when it
was discovered by a collector Mackworth-Praed in Western Inverness.
The butterfly had in fact been known from another nearby locality
for 3 years previously, having been found by Evans, but that site
was a well kept secret.
In 1982 I
surveyed the Highlands for this species, and found it widespread,
discovering 14 colonies including 4 that were previously unknown.
Since that time further studies have been carried out by Butterfly
Conservation, and it is estimated that the butterfly currently (
2009 ) breeds in about 10 core areas. Within that total area there
are about 40 discrete colonies.
In Scotland the butterfly is found at warm,
sheltered, damp sites where the larval foodplant, purple moor grass
Molinea caerulea grows in lightly
wooded areas, often in the vicinity of small streams. Examples
include open oak woods, lightly wooded gullies on hillsides and
mountains, sunny glades in birch woodland, young conifer
plantations, damp scrubby areas on northern and eastern shores of
Lochs, woodland clearings, and roadside verges in wooded areas. Most
Scottish colonies occur at altitudes between sea level and about
200m. Colonies vary considerably in size, some comprising no more
than a couple of dozen insects breeding in a woodland glade, while
others may comprise of several hundred butterflies spread over a 5
mile stretch of lightly wooded valley bottom.
mainland Europe the Chequered Skipper occurs at altitudes up to
about 1600m and it is far less fussy about its habitats, although it
occurs primarily in damp, sunny glades and woodland clearings.
Climate change is likely
to cause local extinctions in more southern localities, but the
butterfly may successfully colonise new areas further north e.g. in
Scotland and Fennoscandia. Existing colonies in Scotland and the
Alps will probably be forced to move to higher altitudes as the
lowlands become too warm to support the butterfly and its habitat.
In Scotland the butterflies emerge in late May
and fly until mid June.
The shiny white spherical eggs are laid singly on
the underside of grass blades. Oviposition occurs primarily on
grasses growing in dappled sunlight beneath bog myrtle bushes. They
are usually laid on Molinea caerulea,
but occasionally on Brachypodium sylvaticum,
which was the grass used by the species at it's former English
sites. A much wider range of grasses are used in Europe and North
caterpillar makes it's first meal of the eggshell. It later
constructs a shelter made by rolling a blade of grass into a tube,
held together with strands of silk. As it grows, it moves to other
grass blades and constructs larger tubes. It feeds diurnally, eating
little notches out of the grass blade above and below where it
other grass-feeding skippers, the larva is equipped with a pair of
prongs at the tail end, which it uses to flick away it's droppings.
This helps to prevent the grass shelter from becoming fouled, and
also removes evidence of the larva's whereabouts, which might
otherwise attract parasitoids or predators.
late September, when the larva is fully grown, it constructs a
silken tent amongst the grass blades, where it hibernates until
April. The mature larva is pale green, but during the autumn the
colour gradually changes to pale straw, matching the surroundings.
Prior to pupation in early May, the larva constructs yet another
shelter, made from dead grasses and silk. The long thin chrysalis is
formed within the shelter. It is pale ochreous, marked with dark
lines along the back and sides. The pupal stage lasts for about 2
On sunny mornings males
establish perches on bushes. They use these vantage points to survey
passing females and defend the territories vigorously against all
passing insects. Other males are promptly ousted from the vicinity.
When a female is intercepted she is chased until she settles, and
copulation then takes place immediately. The pair remain joined for
about an hour, during which time they sit with wings held erect, on
grass blades or other low foliage.
Both sexes spend long periods
basking on the terminal leaves of shoots of bog myrtle, birch, and
other small trees or shrubs. Unlike Hesperiine skippers, but like the
Pyrginae, they usually bask with their wings spread flat, usually with
the forewings draped slightly backwards.
They nectar, with wings closed, at
dandelion and bugle, but also visit marsh lousewort, bluebells, and
orchids. In Scotland, and in the French Alps, I have often found them
mud-puddling, always singly, at ditches or wet soil.
In dull dry weather and overnight,
the butterflies roost on the terminal leaves of small bog myrtle
bushes, or sometimes on bracken fronds or clumps of heather.
In wet weather they hide themselves deep within grass tussocks.