Puddling Butterflies: Recalling Cataloochee Swallowtails

Puddling Butterflies: Recalling Cataloochee Swallowtails

Story and photos by Bob Raynor 

A black swallowtail butterfly recently presented itself on my garden’s chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus). Seeing the butterfly brought back a memory of a gathering of darkly colored butterflies in Cataloochee Valley from almost seven years ago. It was a memory of time spent with family—and a fascinating natural phenomenon called “puddling.”

Back in 2013, I took my grandson Sully on his first trip to the mountains. Besides the bonding experience with the 18-month-old Sully, I wanted to scout Cataloochee for future trips. I don’t remember the conversation with my daughter Sara, but obviously there was significant trust between daughter and father in considering this endeavor. The drive into Cataloochee challenged that family trust. I was glad that Sully was safely secured in his car seat facing backwards and not able to see the route, since the road into the park was “stimulating."

After parking and changing transport to a “Bob” jogging stroller, our shared exploration included a look at some of the historical buildings of Cataloochee and a visit to Cataloochee Creek. We had selected an excellent day for Sully’s first mountain trip and my first visit to Cataloochee Valley. What an incredible setting! It was a quiet August day. Clear blue skies and fair weather cumulus clouds provided a beautiful background for the valley fields with a low mountain rim framing the valley and rising mountains in the distance.

Before long, Sully and I encountered some fascinating wildlife up the road where the pavement ended: three dozen or so colorful butterflies congregating around mud puddles. It was a photographic opportunity I did not miss, but on reflection, it was a phenomenon I did not understand.

Recalling those Cataloochee butterflies from 2013, and wondering if they were also black swallowtails (Papilio polyenes), I was prompted to go looking online for identification. The Cataloochee butterflies were actually pipevine swallowtails (Battus philenor), but after reading an article on them, I reached out to the author with an attached photo to inquire about the Cataloochee gathering. Within hours, the author, University of Florida professor emeritus Donald Hall, sent me an article on the phenomenon of “puddling.”

Puddling, I learned, is a behavior in which butterflies collectively gather nutrients, particularly sodium, from puddles and wet areas using their long proboscises. It is a predominately male behavior and contributes nutrients necessary for successful reproduction. The swallowtail butterfly puddling I observed is a common phenomenon, and though not as singular and show-stopping as the synchronous firefly displays at Elkmont, it was another example of the richness of the Smokies and its natural world.

To learn more about butterfly puddling, mimicry, and more, see Butterflies and Moths of the Smokies, detailing 73 species of butterflies and 27 species of moths, available in GSMNP visitor centers and the GSMA online bookstore.

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