Species of the day: Meadow Brown

29 June 2020 | Posted in James Duncan , Insects
Species of the day: Meadow Brown
Meadow Brown - female © Derek Middleton

By James Duncan

Learning and Engagement Officer

There's no British butterfly species more ubiquitous than the Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina), found in just about every grassy habitat across the British Isles and indeed much further afield. From calcareous grassland to coastal dune, acid heath to roadside verge, garden to cemetery, the Meadow Brown may be found in abundance, where populations can sometimes reach epic proportions. Whilst there's few locations the Meadow Brown won't be found, it may well be comprehensively overlooked for its colouration is of the 'blend into the background' variety. Though it can be well camouflaged amongst the grasses, there's little getting away from the fact it's not the most exotic of British species. However, it tends to beautifully symbolise the arrival of summer for its numbers swell around the solstice, even though it can be seen skipping around hedgerows and roadside verges from a few weeks beforehand. The Meadow Brown is a subtle, but integral part of British summertime and despite its abundance has still suffered in the face of agricultural intensification. A butterfly reliant on unkempt, scruffy spaces, the widespread loss of hay meadows, rise of monocultures and 'improvement' of pastures have all played a part in changing its overall distribution status to somewhat more localised. 

Fascinatingly, the slightly underwhelming Meadow Brown was once viewed as a spy for the devil himself. This of course seems rather unlikely, but continues to be commemorated in the scientific name of Maniola, translating loosely as 'little spirit of the underworld.' This association relates to their wing-based eye-spots, seen as a sinister representation of the devil keeping a watchful eye upon the earth's inhabitants - a satanic 'spy cam' of sorts. Scientifically, the eye-spots have actually made the Meadow Brown the subject of many a long-term genetic study owing to their significant regional variation - even in Britain there are four recognised subspecies. You may well spot a Meadow Brown flying on an overcast day, even in drizzly conditions, for their dark wings absorb sunlight effectively, helping to keep them active. Like many butterflies, the Meadow Brown shows marked sexual dimorphism, with the drabber, chocolate males vastly more cryptic in their colouration. The females on the other hand display larger eye-spots and rather striking orange panels on their forewings, which, once again, may vary considerably. Some might even be what's known as pathologically aberrant, displaying irregular whitish patches and perhaps an identification conundrum.    

The males are the more active of the sexes, patrolling ceaselessly and vigorously defending patches of sunlight within their territory. They'll stop to nectar from a wide variety of plants, some of the most common including Knapweed, Bramble and Thistle. Resident males tend to emerge victorious from fleeting bouts of territorial invasion and intense escalation in combat seems rare. The more colourful and conspicuous females rely on a relaxed lifestyle to keep them out of harm's way, typically sheltering within the longer grasses when not nectaring or egg-laying. When disturbed they may rapidly raise their hind-wings, flashing the eye-spot and startling any potential predator. Pheromones released from 'sex-brands' on the males' wings entice the female into a brief courtship, rather echoing their short lifespan which is typically less than two weeks. The copulation will give rise to a single brood (univoltine), though their flight season is incredibly prolonged, with individuals still spotted in October. The caterpillars (larvae) will overwinter at the bases of tussocks of their favoured meadow-grasses, fescues and bents, emerging during milder spells and becoming increasingly nocturnal as they grow and moult. The wide-ranging emergence of the adults is said to be subject to genetics - dependent on whether the offspring have inherited genes that dictate a slow larval development stage or quite the opposite.

Meadow Brown   male © Roger Wilmshurst

Meadow Brown - male © Roger Wilmshurst

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