Photographer Bryan E. Reynolds encountered a rare hybrid of two of his favorite butterfly species—a well-deserved sighting for a passionate lepidopterist!
Throughout my 13 years in central Oklahoma, one of my favorite spots to photograph butterflies has been the Lexington Wildlife Management Area located in Cleveland County. This 10,000-acre landscape is mostly made up of secondary cross-timbers mixed with prairie, and there are also several ponds and creeks throughout. I am fortunate to live about a mile from this amazing habitat for butterflies.
Two of my favorite butterflies to photograph are the viceroy (Limenitis archippus archippus) and the red-spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis astyanax). Both species can be commonly found near their larval food plant, black willow (Salix nigra) which is abundant in the refuge, especially near wet areas. One such spot that I frequent is along an access road close to where I live. It is a one mile, dead-end, gravel road. My wife and I try to do this two-mile circuit on a daily basis, so we’ve probably done this thousands of times by now. On each walk, we observe all of the flora and fauna, and track the seasons. Of course, I’m always checking out all of the butterflies.
Recently, there have been nice broods of both viceroys and red-spotted purples. On September 28, as we passed a pond bordered by black willows, we both noticed a strange butterfly sitting on the gravel road and imbibing from a wet spot. I was confused at first and thought this must be some sort of rare stray, but soon I realized it was a hybrid between a viceroy and red-spotted purple, Limenitis archippus archippus × Limenitis arthemis astyanax.
Unfortunately, I don’t carry my heavy camera while exercising, but since we only live a couple miles away, my wife kept an eye on the butterfly while I sped home, grabbed my camera, and sped back. Luckily, the butterfly was still there and I was able to capture a number of photos.
Not only are wild butterfly hybrids rare in general, but also there have only been approximately 80 documented sightings of this particular hybrid in the wild. Part of this rarity has to do with timing: The adults of both species need to be in the same area and emerge at the same time in order to have a chance of mating. A lot of black willow grows where I photographed the hybrid, and as I mentioned above, this is one of the major caterpillar foods for both species. So it seems that everything has aligned in this area to produce viceroy and red-spotted purple hybrids.
Some people have artificially mated various combinations of the four species in the genus Limenitis that are found in North America and were able to get some hybrids out of the couplings, but there were also many unsuccessful attempts. Many eggs were unviable, and a large portion of the caterpillars that hatched would die before pupating. However, the hybrid I photographed is not only viable, but also could produce offspring that would then be a 25 percent-75 percent DNA mix of the parents. Those offspring, interestingly, would not show the extreme hybrid patterns as the 50:50 hybrid that I observed.
As for the viceroy and red-spotted purple hybrid that I observed, its exact parentage could only be determined by assessing the butterfly’s mitochondrial DNA. But viceroy females and red-spotted purple males are a more common pairing.
It was an exciting experience to see this beautiful creature. From now on, I’ll be watching for more of these hybrids—and I’ll always have my camera waiting, just in case the opportunity comes again.