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Science & NatureWhat is That?What is that ... Beast from the East?

What is that … Beast from the East?


Some of the naming conventions related to wildlife biology are perplexing, both the English and the Latin/scientific names.  For us the simpler the better, as with the points of the compass.  Not surprisingly, the two most common compass-related names for wildlife we see around the cottage are ‘eastern’ and ‘northern’.  These prefixes are generally used to describe where a species is seen most frequently, but naming conventions are not prescriptive.  The species we see around White Lake, for example, whose common names begin with the word ‘eastern’ are animals that are found east of the Rocky Mountains.  For example, where we see the eastern forktail damselfly, people living west of the Rockies see the western forktail damselfly.

While there are many species of forktail damselfly east of the Rockies, the eastern forktail damselfly is one of the most common, and most importantly one we have learned to identify.  Well, sometimes we can identify one.  Like most damselflies, the eastern forktail has bulbous eyes, a long slender abdomen, and four wings.  The male’s thorax sports green stripes, and its abdomen is mostly black with segments 8 and 9 (near the end) being blue.

Three of the ‘eastern’ butterflies at the cottage that make us smile are the … eastern comma; eastern tailed-blue; and eastern pine elfin.

Most familiar to us is the eastern comma butterfly which we see every year, and have learned to identify.  The upper (dorsal) side is mostly orange with large black spots (called eyes), and black margins.  For us, the definitive identifier is the silver-white comma, enlarged at both ends, looking a bit like a fish hook that shows on the underside.

Some years, we are lucky enough to see the eastern tailed-blue butterfly, usually in August.  It is a very small butterfly which, despite its name, does not always look blue.  To be confident of our identification, we look for the tiny, thin tails which extend from the trailing edge of the underwings.

Another small butterfly is the eastern pine elfin.  It is one of our favourites as much for its name, which scores high on Carolyn’s cuteness scale, as for being amongst the earliest of the butterflies we see at the cottage.  The caterpillars overwinter, with adults emerging in the spring.  Our cottage neighbourhood is perfect for the eastern pine elfin which prefers northern pine forests and adjacent areas where its larvae feed on various pines.  Because of our late arrival to the cottage in 2020, we missed seeing one this year.  The photo below is from 2017.

Another group of insects we learned about just a couple of years ago is the syrphid fly family.  One species we have learned to identify is the eastern calligrapher syrphid fly.  This tiny fly hovers at flower heads to feed on nectar.  Syrphid flies are not bees, although nature has disguised them as bees to deter predators.  Considering their behaviours some people call them hover or drone flies.  This is another insect that scores high on Carolyn’s cuteness scale.

As mentioned at the start of this article, compass-related names are not prescriptive.    A case in point is the western forktail damselfly which, in addition to flying west of the Rockies, also flies throughout northern Ontario where it finds the appropriate wetlands.  We also often see the western conifer seed bug around the cottage. So, ‘eastern’ indicates east of the Rockies, … most of the time.

To write this article, we referred to Dennis Paulson’s Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East; Opler and Malikul’s Eastern Butterflies; and, Hall et al’s ROM Field Guide to Butterflies of Ontario.





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