In Search of Skippers

Academy entomologist Don MacNeill chases down information about some of the insect world's faster fliers.

At rest, skippers look like smaller, stockier versions of their closest relatives - butterflies. But in flight, their wings wildly beating into a blur, they look more like lightening fast bees. Partly because of their speed, relatively little is known about these elusive insects. Besides being hard to catch, skippers are difficult to identify. Superficially, they all look very much alike, and dissection is often the only way to tell two species apart.

Despite these obstacles, Academy Research Associate Don MacNeill has identified and described fifteen new species of skippers in the last several years - all from the genus Hylephila. Most of the species in this genus live high in the Andes of South America, where MacNeill has traveled to search for new skippers. To find these fast fliers in the field, he looks for bogs or marshy streamsides, which make prime habitats for flower-feeding skippers. He then lays low and watches for the characteristic, darting flight patterns of his study subjects. Knowing that skippers have a tendency to zip around and investigate other insects in the search for a mate, he can sometimes anticipate their next move and meet them with a net.

To identify the specimens he collects, MacNeill relies on a microscope and his dissection tools. Even as an expert in the Hylephila genus, he can often distinguish two members of the group only by dissecting their abdomens and comparing their genitalia.

Map by Colleen Sudekum

 

Photographed in San Francisco, this common checkered skipper (Pygrus communis) represents the most prevalent skipper species in the Untied States. Pygrus is a subfamily that lives on dicots, principally mallow. Photo by Dexter Sear, IO Vision.
Lauca National Park, Chile, habitat for butterflies in the genus Hylephila. Photo by Alex Huber
Top: Hylephila skipper. Photo:Dong Lin
Above: Paramo habitat for skippers at 4500 meters showing vega, a marshy or boggy habitat associated with mountain streams or lakes, just south of the Lauca National Park. Photo: Don MacNeill