Over 40 species of butterfly have been recorded in the Turks & Caicos Islands. They range from the large and showy Bahaman Swallowtail (Heraclides andraemon) down to the tiny Pygmy Blue (Brephidium exilis).
While most of the species range throughout the Islands, some are quite local in their distribution. The Swallowtail, for instance, is strictly limited to the Turks & Caicos Islands. This is because its larval food is citrus trees, and they are insufficient in the Turks Islands to support a breeding population.
Indeed, it is a feature of island biogeography that larger islands have a larger number of species of any given thing. That may seem obvious, but in fact the correlation between area and number of species is precise and predictable. It follows, therefore, that the Caicos Islands (being much larger than the more isolated Turks Islands) can be expected to have a greater variety of butterfly species, as in fact they do.
One species is special to the Islands — the Turks Island Leaf Butterfly (Memphis intermedia). It gets its name from the camouflage pattern on the underside of its wings: when closed they make the insect look like a dead leaf. At one time it was believed to be unique to the Turks Islands, but then it was discovered in the Turks And Caicos Islands and then in Inagua, while other subspecies were found to occur elsewhere in the southern Bahamas.
That raises an interesting question — has it extended its range in recent times, or has it always been in these other places but nobody ever noticed? The latter is likely to be the answer. In the past, much of the research on the lepidoptera of the West Indies was done by means of intensive field studies by academic expeditions. If they concentrated on one island, they would miss what went on in the others. Moreover, many species of butterfly are only on the wing for quite short periods at specific times of year. Someone who visits at any other time is likely to miss them.
Much of our information about the butterflies of the Turks & Caicos derives from the observations and field work of Robert St. Leger, who was Development Finance Officer here in the early 1980s. He was a keen collector of butterflies and he published his findings in an article which appeared in the magazine Turks & Caicos Current in 1983. He recorded 37 species. More recently Dr. Oliver Cheesman, working with the Darwin Initiative under the auspices of the Turks & Caicos National Trust, has built on St. Leger’s foundation with field work on Middle Caicos, supplemented by exhaustive research. However our state of knowledge is still such that the amateur observer has an important role to play.
The TCI butterflies fall into seven families: Danaidae (Monarchs); Nymphalidae (Brush-footed butterflies); Heliconidae (Heliconias); Lycaenidae (Blues); Pieridae (Sulphurs); Papilionidae (Swallowtails); and Hesperidae (Skippers). In this article I give a brief account of each.
The Danaids can be disposed of fairly quickly. They include the splendid Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus). The North American form is migratory, and covers large distances en route to its wintering grounds in Mexico, and many turn up in the TCI in the Fall and Spring. There is a very similar sedentary form (Danaus plexippus megalippe), which is believed to breed in the Turks And Caicos Islands (and elsewhere in the West Indies). The specialist can distinguish them by the absence of any white spots above the forewing cell, but to the rest of us they look the same and are equally spectacular.
Of more local interest is The Queen (Danaus gilippus), which occurs throughout the TCI. It is a large insect, with beautiful chocolate brown wings decorated with bright white spots at the tips. It is most often seen during the winter months.
The Nymphalidae are the classic butterflies. They are called “brush-footed” because in males the forelegs are reduced to brushy appendages, useless for walking. They include the Turks Island Leaf Butterfly mentioned earlier. Their other common representative in the TCI is the Caribbean Buckeye (Junonia evarete), whose brown wings are distinguished by three large ocelli, or eyespots, on each side.
The other members of this family occur less commonly: the Mexican Fritillary (Euptoieta hegesia) has been recorded in Middle Caicos around Lorimers; the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is an occasional migrant; and the Mimic (Hypolimnas misippus), an African species believed to have been introduced to the West Indies on slave ships, has recently been seen in Grand Turk.
The Heliconidae are classic tropical butterflies, distinguished by their long forewings. Their only representative in the TCI is the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae). Orange above, with black spots, its underwings are highlighted by bright silver patches. It is common in the TCI (as it is throughout the American tropics), and is on the wing for most of the year. Its caterpillars are covered in fleshy spines and feed on members of the passionflower family, several wild varieties of which grow in the Islands.
The Lycaenidae are a fascinating and diverse group of blue butterflies, but they are all small and often overlooked. The best place to find them is feeding on the flowering bushes that grow on the foreshore, and in particular the Bay Cedar (Suriana maritima) and the Bay Lavender (Mallotonia gnaphalodes). The larger members of the family are called Hairstreaks, and they sport filamentous tails which seem to wiggle with a life of their own — perhaps functioning as dummy antennae, because they are often matched with eye-spots, to distract predators from the head.
All members of the family are an electric blue above, but they rarely perch with their wings open, so you usually see them with the wings held closed above the body. The underside of their wings are usually gray and bear elaborate patterns of dots and dashes, which is one of the ways you can tell them apart. For the smaller blues, the other distinguishing feature is the number and shape of the eye-spots at the back margin of the wings.
The largest of the Hairstreaks is Strymon martialis. The very similar Strymon acis can be found on North and Middle Caicos. It is distinguished by two tiny white spots in front of the white bar on the underside of the hind wing. The dainty Strymon columella is found throughout the Islands and can be very common at times. The smallest, and also the most beautiful of the Hairstreaks, is Chlorostrymon maesites, which is a dark blue above and bright green below.
The other small Blues are hard to tell apart. They include Leptotes cassius, Cyclargus hanno, Cyclargus ammon and possibly Cyclargus thomasi (which is only distinguished from C. ammon by the presence of one extra small spot on the underwing). All seem to fly at the same time of year and to feed on the same plants, and so can often be found together.
The Pygmy Blue (Brephidium exilis) is, as its name suggests, the smallest, measuring a quarter of an inch high with its wings closed, and its underside has a coppery tinge. It is more specific in its habitat than the others, being most commonly found in marshy areas in association with the low-growing succulent Sesuvium portulacastrum.
The Pierids are either yellow or white, and they come in two sizes — large or small. They never, ever perch with their wings open, but always shut them the moment they land. Although 12 species are recorded for the TCI, some are highly migratory and so may occur only sporadically in the Islands. Many of the smaller ones are inconspicuous and hard to tell apart. I have not, therefore, tried to list them all.
Of the big Pierids, Anteos maerula and Phoebis agarithe are the most spectacular, although the former is quite uncommon. The commonest is Phoebis sennae.
Of the smaller ones, the rather dull Eurema elathea is common on Grand Turk, where it likes to keep down among grass stems. The tiny Eurema dina and Eurema chamberlaini are much brighter, and seem to be limited to the Caicos islands. Kricogonia lyside is perhaps the hardest of all to spot — it is a leaf-mimic, and its wings have a green tinge and are shaped to look like leaves. It is common throughout the Islands.
Three species of Papillionidae have been recorded in the TCI, but of these Battus polydamas is probably a vagrant, while Heraclides aristodemus has only been recorded from the woodlands around Kew, in North Caicos. The spectacular Bahaman Swallowtail (Heraclides andraemon), on the other hand, is quite common throughout the Caicos Islands, but unknown on Grand Turk.
Finally there are the Hesperidae, or Skippers. These are furry little creatures, easily mistaken for day-flying moths. They can be distinguished from all other lepidoptera by their antennae, which are hooked at the end. Other butterflies have club-shaped antennae, while those of moths come to a fine point. For this reason Skippers are sometimes placed in a sub-order of their own, the Grypocera.
Most Skippers are wary and fast flying, which makes them hard to see. Eight species are thought to occur in the TCI, but they tend to be pretty dull and difficult to tell apart. The Long-tailed Skipper (Urbanus proteus) is the most showy (or rather, the least dull!) with its long tails and blue body, while the bright orange of the Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus) makes it stand out.
Most Skippers either close their wings when at rest or hold them in a unique configuration, called “tenting,” in which the hind wings are held out flat and the forewings are held vertically. However there is a distinct group, known as open-winged Skippers, which perch with the wings open like other butterflies. This group is represented in the TCI by Ephyriades brunnea, which can at times be very common in the Caicos Islands, although I have only ever seen the occasional wind-blown specimen in Grand Turk. Its wings are a dark brown, often verging on black, which makes it very unusual and easy to spot.
That concludes this brief overview of TCI butterflies. It is not comprehensive and until a full field study is done, no list will be complete.
Migrant species can complicate the picture. Moreover, insect populations on small islands can be ephemeral, some species dying out locally as habitats change (or are changed by the activities of man), and new ones arriving and finding their own niche. The TCI is close to several large islands such as Cuba and Hispaniola, which have large and diverse butterfly populations, and you can never tell what might turn up.
Richard Ground served as Chief Justice of the Turks & Caicos Islands from 1988 to 2004, now holding the same post in Bermuda. When not at work, his main interest is wildlife photography, and Times of the Islands readers have been treated to his superb photo-essays on birds and seashells over the years. This feature on butterflies likely marks the last of his contributions and they will be sorely missed.
Story and Photos by Richard Ground