I Drew a Butterfly and Learned Something New

Gulf fritillary butterfly freshly emerged from chrysalis. Look close. How many legs do you see? Watercolor over mechanical pencil, S&B Alpha Series sketchbook 8 1/2" x 11"
Gulf fritillary butterfly fresh from the chrysalis. How many legs? Watercolor over pencil, S&B Alpha Series sketchbook 8 1/2″ x 11″

It surprised me, too. Insects have six legs, and butterflies are insects. So it should follow that butterflies have six legs, too, right? Then I found a freshly emerged gulf fritillary (see previous post) clinging to its chrysalis under the trellis . While sketching at the top of a stepladder, my face inches away from the butterfly, I noticed a couple of unusual things. First of all, it had only four legs.  And the poor thing was leaking reddish fluid (see notes above). What was going on?

Drawing is a great tool for learning about nature- draw carefully, and you might catch a few overlooked, possibly significant details. Like that leg thing. Did a bird attack and selectively remove two?

This morning another butterfly, a common buckeye, fluttered down and almost landed in my coffee. It was weak and probably dying but strong enough to grip my finger and hold on for a sketch. It had four legs, too. Now I had to try and learn why.

Common buckeye, a gorgeous butterfly with four legs, count 'em. And read on. Pencil on paper.
Common buckeye, a gorgeous butterfly with four legs, count ’em.

It turns out that butterflies in the family Nymphalidae, a.k.a. brushfooted or four-footed butterflies, have six legs (I’m citing Kaufman’s Field Guide to Butterflies of North America), but the pair closest to the head is small, furry, folded up, and really tough to see without a lens. Buckeyes are in the brushfoot family, and so are fritillaries. Cabbage whites and sulphurs are not, and neither are swallowtails; they walk around on six long, perfectly evident legs. And that reddish fluid? It’s called meconium, a fluid left over from caterpillar days, expelled on emergence from the chrysalis. By the way, mammals expel meconium, too. It’s that first poop, y’all.

Next time you get close to a butterfly, count its legs. Or better yet, open your sketchbook. You might be surprised, if not by the leg count, then by something else you never wondered about. At least, not until you drew it.

4 thoughts on “I Drew a Butterfly and Learned Something New

  1. Rajesh Siraskar (India) says:

    Debby – I am a huge fan of your art. Your bird art I’ve downloaded the sketches and view them often.

    I am an amateur sketcher and try to draw birds and did sketch butterflies once. It is amazing how very beautiful your art is

    I live in India and took up sketching from life 2 years ago. I follow your website regularly and it always inspires me


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