Butterflies of Southern New Mexico

by Pam Hendrickson
Photos by Steve Cary,
Courtesy of New Mexico State Parks and New Mexico Game & Fish

Now that winter is but a cold blast from the past here in southern New Mexico, thoughts gladly turn to the flowers of spring; swarms of hummingbirds, robins and other migrating birds; and the delightful prospect of butterflies lighting up the landscape.

Of the state’s 300 plus species (New Mexico is ranked third in the nation for butterflybutterfly populations), about 160 can be found in the southern region.

As warmer temperatures coax flowers into bloom, the vibrant iridescence of the first Spring Azure makes an appearance. Several other "blues" usually join the butterfly pageant shortly thereafter, including the Arizona Blue, Arizona Silvery Blue, Rita Dotted Blue, Silvery Blue, Pygmy Blue, Marine Blue, Spalding’s Blue, and gossamer winged Western Tailed Blues, just to name a few.

Blues are not only gorgeous, they have an intriguing relationship with ants. According to Steve Cary, a leading butterfly expert and photographer for New Mexico State Parks, in his highly educational New Mexico Butterfly Haven "poster," the larvae of blues secrete fluids ants loves to eat. In return, some species of ants chase away wasps and flies that would otherwise parasitically lay their own eggs on top of the blue larvae. Talk about one antennae washing the other!

(New Mexico Butterfly Haven is available in limited numbers to educators. Contact Kevin Holladay, Project WILD coordinator for New Mexico Game & Fish, at 1-505-827-7966, KHolladay@state.nm.us, or, P. O. Box 25112, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87504.)

One of the prettiest butterflies in the gossamer winged family is the diminutive, radiant green Juniper Hairstreak. The name is appropriate since females place their eggs on juniper branch tips so caterpillars can eat the new growth. Also, this green plant is a perfect camouflage for the adults.

Though most of the state’s 25 kinds of hairstreaks live further north, like their Juniper relatives, gossamer winged Great Purple Hairstreaks have no problems dining on flower nectar with a southern flavor.

butterflyAnother colorful example in the gossamer wing family is the Fatal Metalmark, an orange, black-checker fringed creature with an ominous name that has no merit. This butterfly is absolutely harmless. Metalmarks get their name from the burnished metallic stripes on their wings.

Some other metalmarks in the region include the orange-brown, black checkered with white spots specimens called Mormon Metalmark, the yellow-orange Mexican Metalmark (with white spots, some black-edged), and Palmer’s Metalmarks (dark brown or gray with a copper tinge and many small white spots). The Ares Metalmark is recognizable by mostly white fringes, and a dark brown underside with many dark narrow bars. Its hindwing has an orange patch, and the underside is dusky orange with rows of small black spots.

Wherever you follow the flowers, you will find brush footed butterflies. Identifying them is easy: look at their legs. Brush foots have only four functional walking legs, while other butterflies have six, like most insects. They come in all sizes, colors and types.

One of the most famous and fascinating of these is the Monarch. This butterfly is conspicuous because of its large size (wing span: 3 3/8 to 4 7/8 inches) and stunning color, particularly the males. They are brilliant orange with white spotted, wide black borders.

The Monarch’s "host" plant is milkweed. Most milkweeds contain cardiac glycosides which are stored in the bodies of both the caterpillar and adult. These poisons are distasteful and emetic to birds and other vertebrate predators. After tasting a Monarch, a predator might associate the bright warning colors of the adult or caterpillar with an unpleasant meal, and avoid Monarchs in the future.


Another brush footed butterfly, the Queen, is related to the Monarch. This mahogany colored beauty tastes as bad to predators as its cousin because the Queen shares the same diet—milkweed. Unlike the Monarch, which flies through during annual spring and fall migrations, the Queen breeds summer and fall in southern New Mexico.

Brush foots also include several fritillaries, such as the bright orange and black Gulf Fritillary, the tawny orange Variegated Fritillary, and brownish orange Nokomis Fritillaries, which can be identified by their hindwings. Both sexes have hindwings with black bordered silver spots.

Mountain Penstemon Checkerspots are also in the brush foot family, as are the Southwestern Pearly Checkerspot, and the distinctive Theckla Checkerspot, with its dark checkered pattern, black median stripe separating an inner yellow band and outer orange band.

Then there’s the brush footed Texas Crescent. Black and orange with small white spots and some rusty red near its wing bases, it flies low and gathers nectar from flowers along rivers.

The Empress Leilia is a medium colorful brushfoot with an interesting love life. Because the females mate but once in their short lives, the males actually stake out the host vegetation in search of young virgins. A few hours after dawn, just when the females emerge from their cocoons and become ready to fly for the first time, the males begin their watch. Once they’ve made a choice, they "stalk" their intended mate, jealously guarding her, charging any approaching object, whether butterfly, bird or tossed rock. Sometimes, the female turns her overly protective suitor down anyway.

You cannot miss a Giant Swallowtail. It has a 4- to 6 _-inch wing span, and a forewing with a diagonal band of yellow spots, and the tail is edged with black and filled with yellow.

A Western Tiger Swallowtail is considerably smaller. The underside of the forewing has separate yellow spots forming a marginal band, and its hindwing has narrow marginal spots and two orange spots near the end of an inner margin.

Old World Swallowtails can be identified by the hindwing upperside. Near the tail, there is a reddish-orange eyespot with black, along the lower border.

(There are 12 types of swallowtail throughout the state. One of them, the Two-Tailed Swallowtail, a northern New Mexico resident, is the largest butterfly in North America, and may attain a wingspan of six inches.)

White butterflies can be every bit as captivating as their multicolored counterparts. Take a White Pine Butterfly, for instance. Their wings are like velvet, and they shimmer like the finest mother-of-pearl with even the slightest bit of movement.

Another is the Checkered White Butterfly. The upperside of the male forewing has a black checkered pattern with luminous white on the outer half. The female is more heavily patterned, but the markings are more subtle. The hindwings of both male and female are white.

The common Cabbage Whites are a much under-appreciated butterfly. Their markings are a study in pure symmetry, with the upperside of the wings white, and the forewing black tipped. There are two submarginal black spots in the female, one in the male. The underside of their hindwing and forewing apex, are evenly yellow-green or gray-green.

And finally, we have the Dog Face Butterfly, also known as Dogface Sulphur, Southern Dog’s Head, Dog Face, Dog’s Head Butterfly, Poodle Butterfly and Dog Face Black-based Butterfly. How does such a lovely little yellow butterfly get tagged with so many canine names? Next time you visit southern New Mexico’s Rockhound State Park or City of Rocks State Park on a hot summer day after a rain, you’ll likely see several of these butterflies sipping moisture off the wet sand. If you know "butterflyese," ask one to lift a wing. You’ll see a black silhouette of a dog’s face adorning the underside. Of course, you won’t find me asking. It just wouldn’t be good manners.

butterflySince antiquity, humans have had butterflies on the brain. Whisper a wish to a butterfly, Native American legends say, and your wish will come true. For many cultures, butterfly wings are seen as the image of immortality and eternal life, also of joy. Butterflies have been symbolic of fragility, beauty, freedom and spiritual awakening.

Early Greeks considered butterflies to be dead people’s spirits. In many countries, pictures of butterflies can be seen on tombstones. In Finland some people believe the butterfly soul of a dreaming person flutters peacefully above the bed, and the Germans say a person in love has "butterflies in the belly."

Speaking poetically to a butterfly, William Wordsworth said, "Stay near me - do not take thy flight! A little longer stay in sight!"

Perhaps the poet’s sentiment best expresses mankind’s preoccupation with butterflies. These tiny, glorious beings remind us that time is a very precious gift—so precious that it is only given to us moment by moment. Or possibly, the butterfly simply knows more than we do.



Share this page on Facebook:

DesertUSA Newsletter -- We send articles on hiking, camping and places to explore, as well as animals, wildflower reports, plant information and much more. Sign up below or read more about the DesertUSA newsletter here. (It's Free.)

The Desert Environment
The North American Deserts
Desert Geological Terms



Dust DevilsView Video about Dust Devils. Born of the battle between the sun and sand, the dust devil is a rapidly rotating column of air that has wrapped itself around a rising thermal. The average dust devil is ten to fifty feet in diameter. The chief ingredients for a good dust devil are clear skies, a bright sun, and a dry hot surface. Click here to view video.

Desert Food Chain Video - A food chain constitutes a complex network of organisms, from plants to animals, through which energy, derived from the sun, flows in the form of organic matter and dissipates in the form of waste heat. The food chain’s biological productivity and species diversification depend on factors such as the daily duration and angle of seasonal sunlight, the timely availability of water, the daily swings of seasonal temperatures, the chemical content of the soils, and the availability of nutrients.
Watch Video



Take a look at our Animals index page to find information about all kinds of birds, snakes, mammals, spiders and more!



Hot temperatures in the desertAre you interested in the temperatures in the desert?

Click here to see current desert temperatures!

Copyright © 1996-2019 DesertUSA.com and Digital West Media, Inc. - -