Issue Number #40
Issue Date Summer 2008
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Title Butterflies in the Grass
Author Anna Povey

Have you noticed all the brown butterflies, looking chaotically happy as they flit about in the grass? As far as I can work out, the ones around Launceston are mostly Klug's Xenica and Common Browns (I think the photo here is a male).


Others I have found include the Australian Admiral, Meadow Argus and Australian Painted Lady (and of course the European Cabbage White), but I have only begun to identify butterflies, mostly when I find dead ones!

Tasmania has about 35 - 40 species, including the odd introduced species and mainland blow-ins. Of course there are also moths in the same family (Lepidoptera); many more species (about 2000!) and often quite beautiful too. But I know of no books to easily identify moths, so they will have to wait.

Photo: beautiful moths demand a book for identification, please!

Smokey water has been used for at least a decade to encourage seeds of some recalcitrant native species to germinate. However the exact identity of the chemicals responsible have been unidentified to date.

Moth or Butterfly?

Basically butterflies are moths which:

  • have clubbed antennae
  • are day-flyers
  • usually sit with wings upright
  • lack a wing-coupling spine (frenulum) on their hindwing.
  • (Grant, 2003)

We have a vision of butterflies feeding on the nectar of flowers with their special long tongues, but of at least equal importance is the food plant of the caterpillars ? especially native grasses and sedges. Each species has preferred food plants, usually native species, for adults and larvae, which need to be provided for the butterfly to complete its lifecycle. Perusing the Butterflies of Tasmania book, I find the following favourite food plants:

  • Native grasses (various) caterpillars of Dominula Skipper, Tasmanica Skipper, White Grassdart, Yellow-banded Dart, Hobart Brown, Klug's Xenica, Common Brown, Shouldered Brown, Common Silver Xenica, Orichora Brown, threatened Ptunarra Brown
  • Sawsedge/cutting grass, Gahnia spp (various) caterpillars of Chrysotricha Skipper, Donnysa Skipper, Flame Skipper, Masters' Skipper, threatened Chaostola Skipper
  • Sedges, Carex spp. caterpillars of Bright-eyed Brown, threatened Marrawah Skipper
  • Sagg, Lomandra longifolia caterpillar of White Spot Skipper
  • Herbaceous and everlasting daisies adult Dominula Skipper and Mountain Blue, caterpillar Australian Painted Lady (also likes capeweed!)
  • Sassafras, Atherosperma moschatum caterpillar of Macleay's Swallowtail
  • Riceflower, Pimelea spp. adult Macleay's Swallowtail and Hobart Brown
  • Caperbush (not native in Tasmania) butterflies from the mainland sometimes appear here.
  • Broccoli and other Brassica introduced Cabbage White caterpillars
  • Milkweed, Asclepias (a weedy shrub not found in Tasmania) adult Wanderers and Lesser Wanderers sometimes blow over from the mainland.
  • Prickly Box, Bursaria spinosa adults of Common Brown, Shouldered Brown, and Bright Copper, and caterpillar Bright Copper
  • Dandelions adults of Shouldered Brown, Common Grass-blue, threatened Ptunarra Brown
  • Hook sedge, Uncinia tenella caterpillar of Leprea Brown
  • Carpet frilly heath, Pentachondra pumila adult Leprea Brown
  • Heaths, Epacris spp. caterpillar Mountain Blue
  • Broomheath, Monotoca elliptica Mathew's Blue
  • Saltbush, Rhagodia candolleana caterpillar of Chequered Blue
  • Plantains, Plantago spp. caterpillar of Meadow Argus
  • Stinging nettle, Urtica urens caterpillar Australian Admiral
  • Buddleia (introduced shrub) adult Australian Admiral (presumably likes some native shrubs too)
  • Various introduced pea plants, e.g. broom, clover, lucerne caterpillar Pea Blue and Common Grass-blue
  • Wattles, Acacia dealbata, A.mearnsii, A.melanoxylon Tasmanian Hairstreak (see below for complex story)
  • Dodder-laurel, Cassytha spp. caterpillar of Blotched Blue
  • Native peas, inc. Aotus ericoides, caterpillar Fringed Blue.

Another factor in butterfly survival is complex interactions with ants and other species. An example is the Tasmanian Hairstreak. Its caterpillars feed on leaves of silver wattle (and some other wattles) and usually pupate under the bark of nearby mature white gums. It relies on protection by a certain small black ant species, which also has ecological needs ? all of these aspects are required for the Hairstreak to survive.

To preserve our butterflies we need to protect our whole native understorey, including our less colourful sedges and grasses, as our Understorey Networkers well know.

I have long believed in planting local native plants, to provide habitat for local native animals, so I was delighted to be shown the Painted Lady caterpillars on my Clustered Everlastings, Chrysocephalum semipapposum, one of their favourite food plants.

Photo:Caterpillar and chrysalis of Painted Lady, on one of their favourite foodplants, Chrysocephalum semipapposum, in my garden.

Butterflies have recently been found to be useful indicators of the success of revegetation programs. Hopefully they will show the success of yours! A copy of the Butterflies of Tasmania book can help you to start identifying them.

So, enjoy the butterflies this summer!


  • Bell, P. (2005). Threatened Butterflies of Tasmania ? presentation. Threatened Species Section, Department of Primary Industries and Water.
  • Grant, P. (2003). Habitat Garden ? attracting wildlife to your garden. ABC Books, Sydney.
  • Lomov, B., Keith, D.A., Britton, D.R. and Hochuli, D.F. (2006). Are butterflies and moths useful indicators for restoration monitoring? A pilot study in Sydney's Cumberland Plain Woodland. Ecological Management and Restoration, vol.7, no.3, pp.204 - 210.
  • McQuillan, P. (1994). Butterflies of Tasmania. Tasmanian Field Naturalists Club Inc., Hobart.

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