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State Insect of Colorado Lesson: The Colorado Hairstreak Butterfly

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Colorado's state insect is the Colorado hairstreak butterfly. It was designated in 1996 and is one of many hairstreak species that are distributed across the United States and around the world. This article tells you what you need to know about this wonderful butterfly.

Colorado Hairstreak Butterfly's Scientific Name

Colorado's state insect belongs to a group of butterflies that can be found from chilly northern regions to steamy tropical zones. Northern species are generally fairly drab, but southern species are among the world's most breathtakingly beautiful insects. The scientific name for this group is the family Lycaenidae. It includes not just hairstreaks but also the blues and coppers. There are many kinds of butterflies in the group, and they all share some special characteristics.

The scientific name of the Colorado hairstreak is Hypaurotis crysalus. That means the genus name is Hypaurotis and the species name is crysalus. Scientific names are always in italics.

The Colorado hairstreak has a bright purple upperside and a brown underside.

The Colorado hairstreak has a bright purple upperside and a brown underside.

The Colorado Hairstreak's Unique Coloration

There are very few butterflies in North America that possess the gorgeous iridescent purple-blue colors of the Colorado hairstreak. Its closest competition, one could argue, is the great purple hairstreak, a related species that flies throughout much of the southern United States. A related species known as the white-m hairstreak has a more electric blue upperside than either of these insects.

The underside of this butterfly's wings is a different story. Virtually all hairstreak butterflies, no matter where they occur, have a dull-colored underside, which helps them blend into the background when the insect lands and folds its wings above its back. The Colorado hairstreak is no exception to the rule, with a dun-colored underside rimmed with pale blue and orange spots.

As a middle school teacher myself, I wrote this guide to be useful for both students and teachers. It's a great place to start for research ideas and science fair projects!

Which end is which? The hairstreak butterfly's tails make it hard for predators to tell.

Which end is which? The hairstreak butterfly's tails make it hard for predators to tell.

Hairstreak Butterfly "Tails"

Hairstreak butterflies likely get their common name from the hair-like tails that extend from the hindwings. Researchers who study insects ("entomologists") believe that these tails are intended to look like antennae, which of course are part of the insect's head. If a hungry bird or lizard snaps at the fake "head," with its mimic antennae, the butterfly will only lose a bit of wing and can live to fly, mate, and reproduce.

More credence is given to this theory when you observe a hairstreak butterfly in the field. When the butterfly lands, it will often face downward or upside down, and rub its hindwings together to move the tails and draw attention to its hind end. Overall, it gives a pretty convincing display. It really does make you think that you're looking at the hairstreak's head, instead of its tail.

One sharp-eyed predator that may be fooled by this tactic is the jumping spider. This quick, deadly hunter doesn't spin a web, but instead prowls around flowers and foliage as it seeks its prey, mostly other insects that are often much larger than the spider. It tends to grab victims by the head and bite, seeking to quickly incapacitate its meal by attacking the all-important head. The hairstreak butterfly's tails may well save it from being grabbed by a hungry jumping spider.

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The Colorado Hairstreak's Range

The Colorado hairstreak butterfly is native to the southwestern states, centered around the Continental Divide. It has a narrower range than most North American insects, and is closely associated with the gambel oak tree, and it will almost always be found within the general vicinity of these trees.

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Diet and Habits

Like nearly all adult butterflies, Colorado hairstreaks feed on flower nectar; they also augment their diet with sap and other fluids. The main purpose of adult butterflies (and all adult insects) is to find a mate and reproduce. The Colorado hairstreak lives in colonies that permit easier location of a mate. Once the adult butterflies mate, the female lays her eggs on gambel oak leaves. The slug-like caterpillar eats the oak leaves.

A typical hairstreak caterpillar

A typical hairstreak caterpillar

Complete Metamorphosis

"Complete metamorphosis" is the term used to describe the life cycle of insects that go through a four-stage sequence of forms. For butterflies, this means egg-larva-cocoon/chrysalis-adult. It helps to take the butterfly as the example, although dragonflies, bees, wasps, flies, beetles, and many other insects also go through complete metamorphosis. Like butterflies, they all have larvae and all of the other developmental stages.

The Colorado hairstreak butterfly is typical of the insects that undergo complete metamorphosis. The egg is laid on the food plant, and the caterpillar that hatches out eats the leaves of the plant. As it grows, it sheds its skin, also known as molting. The stages between molts are called instars, and after the last instar, the caterpillar sheds its skin one more time.

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The last time the caterpillar sheds its skin, it enters the cocoon/chrysalis phase, known by scientists as "diapause." It's also called a "pupa." Inside the pupa, the insect's cells are rearranging. They actually break down into a kind of goop, and then reassemble to form the body and wings of the adult butterfly or moth.

The final "instar" occurs when the insect hatches out of the pupal skin. It is now ready to mate and continue the cycle. The adult feeds just enough to promote the goal of mating and laying eggs; other than that, it has no purpose on this planet.

Resources

The following sources were used for this guide:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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