American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) (Linnaeus, 1761)

Diagnosis: This little butterfly (wingspan: 21 to 30 mm) has bright metallic orange forewings with a grey border and black spots. The hindwing is grey with an orange border. The hindwing underside is grey with a wavy, dull submarginal orange line.

Subspecies: The eastern population is Lycaena phlaeas americana. Opler and Malikul (1992) suggested that the eastern population was introduced from Europe in colonial times because it is associated with waste places and an introduced foodplant, and resembles European material. Unlike European specimens, however, subspecies americana has a pale grey (rather than brown) hindwing underside, with larger, more sharply defined, black spots. In Europe second generation Lycaena phlaeas tend to be duskier in colour and have short tails, unlike subspecies americana. Subspecies americana is most similar to subspecies polaris Courvoisier, which occurs in northern Fennoscandia. Subspecies feildeni, with yellow-orange forewings and smaller black spots, occurs through tundra areas of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories and along the arctic coast of Yukon and Alaska. Subspecies arethusa, with dusky forewings, occurs from the Rocky Mountains of Alberta northward to Boreal Zone habitat in southern and central Yukon. Specimens closely resembling subspecies polaris, of northern Europe and Russia, occur in high-elevation tundra in Yukon; these are similar to subspecies americana but are darker grey on the hindwing beneath.

Range: The American Copper is found throughout the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere and north into the Arctic to Hazen Lake, near the northern tip of Ellesmere Island. In the east, subspecies americana is found from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, west to northwestern Ontario, with an isolated record from Saskatchewan at Regina (Hooper, 1973). The northern and western subspecies occur throughout the tundra areas of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Alaska, and southward in the mountains to the Columbia River in British Columbia and through Alberta to Wyoming, with an isolated population in the Sierra Nevada in California.

Specimen collection data

Similar Species: The female Bronze Copper (L. hyllus) is similar, but is considerably larger. [compare images]

Early Stages: The larvae range from red to yellowish-green in colour, with varying red to white stripes, and are covered with downy hair. In the east, they feed on Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella) or Curled Dock (Rumex crispus) and in the Arctic on Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria digyna).

Abundance: Tends to be highly localized, even in areas where it is fairly common (Layberry et al..,1982).

Flight Season: There are at least two broods in eastern Canada from June to September. In the north and west there is one brood in July and August.

Habits: For such a small butterfly it can be very pugnacious, chasing off other butterflies from its territory. It is most often found nectaring on flowers such as goldenrods.

Remarks: This species can be highly variable; one form has the black dots on the upperside of the forewing large and fused together.

© 2002. This material is reproduced with permission from The Butterflies of Canada by Ross A. Layberry, Peter W. Hall, and J. Donald Lafontaine. University of Toronto Press; 1998. Specimen photos courtesy of John T. Fowler.