Tom Turpin
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Purdue University


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Abundance of skippers

Mention the word "skipper" and not everyone thinks of the same thing. To some people it suggests the captain of a ship. For those of us who have been around for awhile, we might think of the TV show "Gilligan's Island," which featured a character called the "Skipper" - the captain of a charter boat that shipwrecked on an island in the Pacific.

Some people immediately visualize a person jumping a rope when they hear the word skipper. If you know about "Gilligan's Island," you might also remember a song by Henson Cargill that was a No.-1 hit on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Hits in 1967. "Skip a Rope" admonished us to "listen to the children" and hear what they say when skipping rope.

"Skip a Rope" was about kids at play. I suspect that very few children in the world have not tried to jump, or skip, rope at some time or another. But rope-skippers could also be athletes in training, including boxers getting ready for a prizefight. Even a middle-aged person trying to shed a few pounds in an exercise class has been known to take jump rope in hand and do a little skipping.

Skipper butterfly on orange flower
Skipper butterfly on an orange flower (photos by John Obermeyer/Purdue Entomology)

So what does it mean to skip? My dictionary defines the word as "to bound, especially by taking two steps at a time with each foot, including a hop and step." There are other definitions. One is to omit something such as skipping a meal or a meeting. Another is to cause an object to skim such as when you skip a rock on the surface of the water. At least that is what sometimes happens, if you fling the rock properly. And still another definition of the word is a type of butterfly.

Yes, a skipper is a name used for a group of butterflies! There are some 200 species of skippers that are found in the U.S. Scientists classify the skipper butterflies in the insect family Hesperiidae.

Skipper butterfly on purple flower
Skippers enjoy nectar from a purple flower.

Skipper butterflies get their common name because they fly fast and somewhat erratically - very much like a kid skipping along the sidewalk. Skippers of the insect kind are small butterflies and tend to be gray or brown in color. These insects have stouter bodes than most butterflies. In addition, the skipper butterflies have antennae that are set wide apart at the base and hooked at the end.

Skipper butterfly on dorsal bush
Skipper lights on a dorsal bush

Another difference between skippers and other butterflies is in the way they hold their wings when at rest. As is the case with many adult insects, butterflies have two pairs of wings. In general, the front and hind wings on each side of the butterfly stay together as a pair. Consequently, it often appears that butterflies have one large wing, rather than two wings, on each side of their body. Skippers, though, when at rest hold the front and hind wings at different angles. As a result, it is obvious to those viewing resting skipper butterflies that two pairs of wings are present.

Caterpillars of skipper butterflies are smooth-bodied and, unlike other butterflies, have a constriction in their bodies behind their heads that makes them appear to have a "neck." Skipper caterpillars often feed in a leaf shelter. At pupation time, the caterpillars form a cocoon by wrapping themselves in hunks of leaves fastened together with silk.

One of the most common of the skippers, at least in our backyard, is the silver spotted. Its name is based on a silver spot on the underside of the hind wings. That means when the skipper is feeding on nectar from flowers, the silver spot is visible when the wings are in the upright position.

One of the food plants for silver-spotted skipper caterpillars is a black locust tree. The adults feed on nectar from a variety of flowers. Similar to other insects, populations of silver-spotted skippers build up in the fall. This is when people sometimes notice these little butterflies. Hundreds can be seen skipping among the late-season flowers in a sunny location.

Anybody remember singing the children's song "Skip to My Lou?" If skipper butterflies could sing, that would have to be their theme song.



Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox