Insect Profile: The Apollo

*Featured image: Specimens of  Parnassius Apollo in a collection case at the Zoologische Staatssammlung München. Photo: Susanne Schmitt.

By Susanne Schmitt and Birgit Müller

Classified as moderately endangered, Parnassius apollo is a species of butterfly that inhabits mountain meadows and rocky alpine sites. These creatures’ large wings make them visible from afar, even for visually clumsy humans who lack a predator’s—or insect connoisseur’s—sharp and educated gaze. They are known as Apollofalter in German and Apollo (like the Greek god) in English, and in earlier literature were called the “Crimson-ringed.” It is easy to see why: the butterfly’s lower wings are adorned with startling red circles—one pair, sometimes two—sharply outlined in black on wings that oscillate between white, yellow, and grey.

The Apollo is found in parts of Southern Germany and the Alps, Central Europe, and the Balkans, as well as the Mediterranean and Scandinavia. Its range extends southwards to Turkey and eastwards to Central Asia. The caterpillars of the species sport orange circles as well, which line their black bodies like a string of pearls. The intensity and number of dots increase as the caterpillars age and approach metamorphosis, where they pupate and then turn into butterflies. The caterpillars feed on stonecrop, which grows on gravel and rocky ground—it is said to be the reason that the caterpillars taste so foul (if you ever wanted to try them!).

Parnassius Apollo. Photo by Hinox [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

Apollos hold great meaning for many people. When butterfly collecting was still a craze, they were a particular favorite.

We were lucky to be able to see these and a huge variety of other moths and butterflies firsthand, in the chill storage rooms of the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology (ZSM). There, we met Andreas Segerer, the ZSM’s chief moth expert. Read our interview with him in tomorrow’s installment.

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