Rocky Mountain Apollo
Family - PAPILIONIDAE
Parnassius smintheus, Red Rock Canyon,
© Martin Gascoigne-Pees
Parnassius, known commonly as Apollos,
comprises of 53 species. Three of these are endemic to North
America, a further 2 are found both in North America and the
Palaearctic, and the remainder are distributed variously across
Europe and temperate Asia.
are instantly recognisable as a genus, having rounded translucent
whitish wings that in most species are adorned with prominent
white-centred red ocelli. Unlike most other Papilionidae they have
short antennae with non-recurved tips.
Many Parnassius species are exceedingly
rare and have a very localised distribution, but there are a few
widespread species e.g. apollo which is
distributed from Spain to Siberia; and
eversmanni, which is found in Alaska and across much of
Parnassius smintheus is found in
Alaska, British Columbia, Alberta and the Rocky Mountain states of
the USA. There are 8 subspecies.
This species inhabits scree slopes and windswept dry rocky plains at
high elevations, often above the tree line. It breeds at sites where
there are flat boulders on which the adults can bask, and crevices
in which they can hide during bad weather.
The egg is white and spherical, and is laid singly on a leaf of the
foodplant Sedum ( Crassulaceae ) or on a
nearby blade of grass. The fully grown larva is plump and black with a
pair of bright yellow dorsal spots on each segment, and a broken
yellow lateral stripe. The pupa is pale yellowish brown and is formed
within a flimsy silk cocoon spun among leaf litter at the base of the
Males sometimes imbibe mineralised moisture from damp ground, but in
common with the females they are more often seen in flight, or when
nectaring at flowers, of which favourites include
Sedum and Cirsium.
The butterflies have a rapid flight, soaring effortlessly across
mountainsides. Their robust and stiff wings make a distinct flapping
noise as they fly past. In warm sunny conditions they fly actively
from flower to flower, but will sometimes remain on a single
flower-head for several minutes at a time. In cooler weather they
often bask on lichen-encrusted rocks and boulders, on which they can
maintain a very strong grip, even in very windy conditions.
Females are intercepted in flight by the aggressive males, which force
them to the ground, flip them on their sides, and wrestle them into a
position whereby copulation can take place. Copulation takes place at
about midday, and lasts for about 2 hours. During copulation the
female develops a large chitinous structure called a sphragis on her
abdomen. This seals the genital opening to thereby preventing other
males from mating with her.