Amazing Wanderers:The American Snout

When most people think of migrating butterflies, they probably think of the Monarch (Danaus plexippus), and with good reason. This northernmost member of the milkweed butterfly family travels thousands of miles, using multiple generations, from its breeding grounds in southern Canada and the northern United States to its wintering grounds in the central highlands of Mexico. But the Monarch is not our only butterfly prone to wanderlust.

The American Snout (Libytheana carinenta), a member of the brush-foot family of butterflies, may not be as well known as the Monarch, but not for lack of effort on its part. The Snout is a common butterfly in much of its range, especially in late summer.  In deep-south Texas, where I lived from 2001 - 2010, it can regularly be seen into November and even December with other over-wintering species such as the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) and Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). But every so often, perhaps once a decade, the Snout’s numbers explode resulting in one of Nature’s great spectacles!

I first experienced this during the last week of September 1996 while visiting San Antonio for my younger son’s 30th birthday. During that time, we traveled to Austin, Lost Maples State Park, and Choke Canyon State Park, each an hour or two from San Antonio in different directions. The Snout’s were so thick I was reluctant to drive for more than 30-45 minutes without cleaning the grill least the car overheat! This lasted the entire week, and even made the local TV news. In fact, this spectacle was one of the reasons I became a butterfly watcher the next year.

Although the Autumn of 2001 was not an exceptional Snout season, I well remember the vast numbers of this species throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley, lasting well beyond Mission’s Texas Butterfly Festival held that October.

The medium-sized adult (about 1 ½ to 2 inches from wingtip to wingtip) gets its name from its elongated palpi, organs that resemble a long nose or snout. While the palpi have nothing to do with breathing, they do help the animals detect food and find potential mates. This is not an especially showy butterfly. In fact, one of its defensive strategies is to hold its palpi and antennae against its perch. This, coupled with its grayish-brown undersurface, gives it a “dead leaf” appearance. (There is actually a fairly bright orange area on its forewings visible from below, but the Snout often lowers its forewings so they are within its hind wings hiding these patches.) Its upper surface, on the other hand, is modestly showy with four whitish spots near the tips of each forewing and large orange areas on each fore and hind wing.

The American Snout regularly ranges from southern South America north to central California and southern New England. Occasionally, it even reaches our northern prairie states and southern Canada. The Snout prefers lightly wooded areas such as wood edges, second growth meadows, and thorn scrub (the predominant habitat in much of The Valley). The American Snout lays its tiny, pale green eggs on, and its caterpillars eat, hackberry leaves. In The Valley, these typically include Spiny Hackberry (Celtis pallida), also known as Granjeño, and Sugar Hackberry (Celtis laevigata), also known as Palo Blanco. Although adult Snouts commonly nectar on a variety of flowers, including aster, dogbane, goldenrod, sweet pepperbush, mint, etc., they also readily feed upon rotting fruit and are easily attracted to butterfly feeders featuring such fare. The feeders at The Valley Nature Center, in Weslaco, often have Snouts in attendance, as well as a variety of other fruit-feeding butterflies.

On August 10, 2002, I was privileged to participate in a canoe guide, training program sponsored by the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor. The weather was very nice, albeit deep-south Texas warm, and Mother Nature was loving it with lots of wildlife present throughout the trip. Among the most abundant were the thousands upon thousands of American Snout! Wherever there was vegetation, Snouts were present in numbers ranging from scores to uncountable.

If you haven’t started noticing butterflies yet, give it a try and be ion the lookout for the American Snout. It actually is the first butterfly I have on my life butterfly list! After all, this is no better show than Nature doing her thing!

Mike Hannisian