About Nebraska Lepidoptera
By Neil Dankert
Driving down Interstate 80 Nebraska might seem pretty boring, but wander off into the far flung corners of the state and it suddenly becomes incredibly diverse. Our butterfly fauna reflects that. Who would guess that “lowly” Nebraska would rank in the top 10 in number of butterfly species found within its borders. Ok, we’re number ten but considering we have no mountain ranges that is still very impressive. Our habitats range from deciduous woodlands in the southeast to pine forests in the northwest. Include tallgrass, mixed, sandhills and shortgrass prairies, combined totaling 83 natural plant communities. It’s no surprise then that with all these ecosystems and our location in the center of the continent that we would have 211 butterfly species recorded from our state. One quick taxonomy note – strictly speaking skippers, having several morphological differences (wing veination, hooked antennae instead of clubbed), are not true butterflies. But as they are day flying and colorful they are often lumped in as butterflies in popular literature. We will follow that line of thinking here.
So, if of North America North of Mexico’s roughly 750 species, over a fourth have been found in Nebraska, I’m sure you are wondering which counties have the most recorded species? Species/county is an interesting mix of where there are butterflies and where there are observers. The top ten counties in Nebraska are: Sioux – 125, Dawes – 120, Furnas – 110, Douglas – 108, Lancaster – 90, Cherry – 88, Buffalo – 87, Sheridan – 86, Brown – 85 and Sarpy – 85. Western panhandle counties begin to see the influence of pine forest and shortgrass prairie ecosystems and their associated butterfly communities. In addition staff from the University of Nebraska made numerous trips to the area beginning in the early 1900s. Other high count counties that are urban centers reflect the presence of numerous observers over a long period of time. So, in theory, any county with observers over a hundred year time period would likely tally close to 90 species. Of Furnas county’s 110 species one man, lifelong resident Doug Long, who knew the county like the back of his hand, found 109 of them. We “discovered” Doug with an outreach from the KSC biology dept newsletter to high school biology teachers which one of Doug’s sons told him about. After that time until his death in 2008 we bounced ideas and information back and forth to our mutual benefit. So there is a lot of knowledge out there in the hands of citizen scientists. It is hoped that this blog will educate both myself and the reader.
Nebraska’s moth fauna is perhaps less well documented, but still numbers 1319 species. These include records from the insects collection at UNL, previous lists handed down to me and reports submitted to the Lep Soc season summary over the last 30 years. Once again there are likely many records in private hands not included on the lists. There are roughly 20,000 species of moths recorded from North America north of Mexico. Then consider that Nebraska has over 1/4 of that area’s butterflies within it’s borders. Most of the big showy moths in the state have likely been reported. But there remain a host of smaller “micro moths” to investigate, nineteen new species of which were reported in 2019 and more are found each year.
There are numerous excellent online references for Lepidoptera. One is “Butterflies and Moths of north America” https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/. Here under the species profile tab you can search “regional checklist” and select down to USA, Nebraska and/or whichever of the 93 counties you would like lists of. I think they go through the Lep Soc season summary and update every year so they should be pretty up to date. Drs. Nagel and Hoback (formerly UNK staff), Dr. Brust (now of Chadron State College) and I got a website put together on butterflies and tiger and carrion beetles of Nebraska a while back that is still up (click here to visit). The range maps are a bit dated but it has good information on flight times and locations. Pass the curser over the illustration to view the ventral side.
The Moth Photographers Group website has a feature allowing you to search by region and Nebraska is an option. However the list they generate will only be species of which a photo has been sent to them. For the latest spreadsheet I have on Nebraska moths contact me at NebraskaButterflies@gmail.com or visit the Nebraska Species page on this site.
A quick note on collecting vs photographing. I was raised with a net. Kudos to those of you who are proficient with a camera. I am not. If I can get a pinned specimen I can find someone to id it. I rarely collect specimens any more unless they are county or state records and then they end up (sooner or later) in an institution of higher learning where, properly cared for, they last indefinitely and are proof positive of the record. So I think there is room for both responsible collectors and photographers in gathering data. Also while you are certainly welcome to send pictures this is not intended to be an identification site. I will ID what I can but if I have any uncertainty whatsoever I will pass on the ID. BugGuide.net and Moth Photographers Group are both excellent ID sources.