Harbinger of Spring: Nymphalis antiopa

From The Hiker’s Notebook by William Needham

Her common name is Mourning Cloak, but she is also know as Harbinger of Spring, and Camberwell beauty. The name Mourning Cloak is due to the appearance of the dorsal surface of the wings, said to resemble the traditional cloak worn by those in mourning, which was sometimes draped over the casket of the deceased.

Her scientific name is Nymphalis antiope. The generic name is from the Greek nymphe, which was the name given in both Roman and Greek mythology to any of a number of minor nature goddesses who were young and beautiful, living in rivers, mountains, or trees. The reference here is to the goddess-like sylvan nature of the Mourning Cloak. Antiope was a noted beauty of Greek mythology who was seduced by Zeus in the form of a Satyr. She bore two sons, Amphion and Zethos, the founders of the Greek city of Thebes. The species name antiope creates a tautonym, as both of the scientific names of the Mourning Cloak refer to its embodiment of mythological beauty.

The Mourning Cloak is one of the first butterflies to appear as the days start to lengthen at the end of the winter, usually several weeks before spring, depending on the latitude. The reason for this seemingly anomalous behavior is that the Mourning Cloak overwinters as an adult, contrary to most other butterflies and moths that overwinter as eggs, larvae or pupae. The common name “harbinger of spring” is a reflection of its symbolism of the vernal renaissance of the woodland flora and fauna.

For more about the lovely Mourning Coat and other wonderful observations on our natural world, please be sure to visit William Needham’s The Hiker’s Notebook.

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