Confusing Butterflies

Top Photo: Pearl crescents mate.

There are two small, orange and black butterflies in our area that are very similar in appearance and may easily be confused with one another. I’ve gotten them mixed up on more than one occasion. As mentioned, both are orange and black, both fly low to the ground and both can be found in the same habitat, though one prefers wetter areas.

First, a warning, the butterflies are variable in pattern and coloration. They don’t all look exactly like the individuals in the photos displayed here.

Pearl crescent is the most widespread of the two (top photo). It’s also slightly smaller, but unless you see both butteries perched right next to each other (not likely), or in your hand, it’s tough to judge size.

In the photos shown here, pearl crescent is the one on the left, silvery checkerspot is on the right. Looking at the photos you might think, “not a problem, it’s obvious the two are different species,” but take my word for it, it’s not always as obvious as it seems. Seeing one flutter around down near the ground, barely stopping to perch, it’s hard to get a bead on it. And, as you bend to look at it when it finally does decide to perch, it’s off, gone, and may take a frustratingly long time before it settles in again.

I usually find silvery checkerspots near water and wherever crownbeard grows. Along open streams and rivers are good places to look. Pearl crescents can be seen both near water and just about any other habitat besides deep woods. Sunny locations are best. The grassy edges of paths and roads are good for pearl crescent.

When you see one perch with wings wide open, taking in the sun, you may notice the silvery checkerspot has more black on the outer margins of the wings than pearl crescent.

Pearl crescent (left) and silvery checkerspot, upper surface of wings.

The underside of the butterflies can also help identify each, though it’s not always easy to see the undersides. You’ll notice from the photos that pearl crescent has a cleaner hindwing, there’s less going on, it’s neater. Though there are fine reticulations on the wing (look close), it’s less cluttered. There’s one dark smudge near the outer edge of the hind wing. The smudge contains two tiny crescents. The inner crescent is usually white or pearly, which is where this butterfly gets its name.

Pearl crescent (left) and silvery checkerspot, under surface of wings.

Silvery checkerspot’s underside hindwing is more cluttered, but there’s a relatively lighter cream-colored band running across the center of the wing, midway out on the wing.

If the insect cooperates and perches for you, then that’s all you really need to know to identify either of these little butterflies. But, as I said, the colors and patterns on the butterflies are variable, especially pearl crescents. And, the older they are the more worn and faded they become. If you can get a good look at them, you should be able to identify either.

You’ll probably see more pearl crescents than silvery checkerspots unless you run into a colony of silvery checkerspots. I can guarantee you’ll see more pearl crescents here at the museum.

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