The State Insect of Montana
State Insect of Montana -- The Mourning Cloak
I am always amazed when I get a chance to see a mourning cloak up close. When they're on the wing they appear to be little more than a medium-sized dark gray butterfly, but once an individual lands on a sunny patch of moist earth, the true glory of its markings can be seen. The ground color is a deep, almost iridescent purplish-brown, bordered by a band of royal blue-black with bright lavender spots; the entire margin of the wings is a pale yellow. Underneath, it's a different story. The wings are mottled gray and black, which gives rise to its common name -- the colors are so somber that early entomologists compared it to the dark cloaks worn by mourners at a funeral.
This butterfly has a nearly world-wide distribution, but it is exceedingly rare in the UK, where it is known as "the Camberwell Beauty." A much better name, I think, for one of the most beautiful of all butterflies.
Mourning Cloak Showing Underside of Wings
The scientific name for the mourning cloak is Nymphalis antiopa. It belongs to a large family of butterflies known as the Nymphalidae. The jagged edges of the mourning cloak's wings are an indication that it belongs to a further subset called the angle wings. These butterflies occur throughout temperate areas of the world and include some of the most familiar butterflies, including tortoise shells and the peacock butterfly.
The mourning cloak was previously known as "the grand surprise."
Mourning Cloak Caterpillar -- AKA the Spiny Elm Caterpillar
The Mourning Cloak -- Early Stages
The mourning cloak's caterpillar eats elm, and is sometimes known as "the spiny elm caterpillar." It's black, spiny, and has red spots running along its back. The chrysalis is angular and looks very much like a dried leaf.
The mourning cloak often hibernates over the winter in a sheltered place, or inside a garage or shed. It is typically one of the first butterflies on the wing once the weather warms up.
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The State Butterfly of Montana
In 2001 the state of Montana officially adopted the mourning cloak as the state butterfly. While many other states played it safe and went with the monarch, Montana's state butterfly was an inspired choice. Hopefully it will draw people to notice this often-overlooked beauty.