FAMILY: Nymphalidae

DESCRIPTION: The Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly has a checkered pattern on its wings with dark brown, red, orange, white, and black spots and lines. Rust-colored hairs cover its head, and its abdomen is black with light horizontal stripes. A circle of yellowish hairs can be found at the base of the abdomen. The checkerspot’s wingspan is about two inches. Females tend to be slightly larger than males, and the female’s abdomen is more rounded in shape.

HABITAT: Checkerspots inhabit mountain meadows within mixed-conifer forest at elevations between 8,000 and 9,000 feet. They live in areas where their associated larval host plant, the New Mexico penstemon, is found.

RANGE: The Sacramento Mountains checkerspot is found only within the Sacramento Mountains of central New Mexico near the town of Cloudcroft. The known range of this butterfly is a 33-square-mile area, within which only eight square miles of suitable habitat exists. Of this, only three square miles may be occupied by the species.

MIGRATION: This butterfly does not migrate.

BREEDING: In July or August, adult butterflies lay a cluster of 10 to 100 eggs on the New Mexico penstemon, a beautiful plant endemic to the state’s Sacramento Mountains. Larvae hatch and begin feeding on the host plants until the fall when they enter a period of suspended growth, hiding in leaf litter and tree bark until spring. Larvae reawaken in late spring, pupate, and emerge as adults by midsummer.

LIFE CYCLE: Before their metamorphosis into adulthood, and depending on environmental conditions, larvae can live for nine months to a year or more. Adult Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterflies live for two weeks.

FEEDING: Larvae feed on their two host plants: New Mexico penstemon and sometimes valerian. Adults have been observed feeding from a wide range of plants, but they are most commonly associated with orange sneezewort.

THREATS: Threats to this species include urban sprawl, road construction, livestock grazing, off-road vehicles, fire suppression, pesticide spraying, invasive plants, and global warming. The Cloudcroft-initiated Draft Conservation Plan for the Sacramento Mountains Checkerspot Butterfly may lessen some of these threats, but the plan only covers publicly owned land, leaving approximately 50 percent of the butterfly’s range without any management.

POPULATION TREND: Efforts to gather population data on this species have not been entirely conclusive but suggest a downward trend since the late 1990s. Population studies carried out by the U.S. Forest Service suggest that the total current population is approximately 1,000 individuals.

Photo by Eric Hein, USFWS