Skippers at Sunset

Overlooked but not unloved

Bronwen Scott

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Skipper butterfly posed on a lillypilly leaf, Atherton Tablelands, FNQ. © Bronwen Scott.

They skip through the air in a stop/start, rise/fall, quick/slow, tango/rumba/salsa type of flight. Their motion gives them the common name of Skippers. Oh, to be sure, some are called Darts and Darters and Swifts for their no nonsense A-to-B flying. But most have this fluttery way.

More than 3,500 species of Skippers are found across the world. They are ubiquitous but somehow still barely known to all but the keenest observers of nature. Almost certainly, you have seen these small, brown and orange butterflies as they foxtrot around flowers or rest for a moment on day-warmed leaves.

Brown-and-orange sounds ordinary. But it covers a range of shades — from the edge of black to the colour of sunlight.

Skipper from above showing the position of the wings, moss green hair on the body, and the hooked antennae. © Bronwen Scott.

The first species to be given a scientific name was what is now known as Hesperia comma, the Silver-spotted or Common Branded Skipper. It was not given exactly that name at the time. The Swedish naturalist Linnaeus, who described it in 1758, called it Papilio comma: Papilio for butterfly and comma for the pale marks on its wings. Linnaeus used an additional descriptor — Plebejus — which referred to its humble appearance and abundance.

Common.

Just minding its own business. © Bronwen Scott.

Thirty-five years later, this plebeian butterfly received a different name. Recognising that Papilio was too big and too loosely defined to be a useful category, Fabricius divided it into smaller groups. A new genus, Hesperia, was created for Papilio comma and its relatives. In 1809, the genus gave its name to a new family, Hesperiidae (as Hesperides), designated by Latreille. (Link opens as PDF.)

Hesperia comma is a widespread species, extending from western Europe through northern Asia and across the Bering Strait into North America. Its brown and orange patterns and the way in which it rests with forewings vertical and hindwings horizontal make it a ‘typical’ Skipper. The species I photographed in my garden here in Far North…

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Bronwen Scott

Zoologist, writer, artist, museum fan, enjoying life in the tropical rainforest of Far North Queensland. She/her. Website: bronwenscott.com