Sachem

Atalopedes campestris

sachem_on_coneflower_brunet2012_0649.jpg

image of a Sachem, Wings Folded
The underside of female sachems is light brown with pale spots forming a V-shape on the hindwing.
Donna Brunet
Family

Hesperiidae (skippers)

Description

The sachem is one of several orange and brown grass skippers, and males and females look different.

The underside of males is orange with light brown markings, including an indistinct brown square in the center of the trailing edge of the hindwing; a fairly large lighter orange patch in the center of the hindwing usually comes to a V-shaped point near the trailing edge. On the upperside forewing, there is a distinctively very large stigma (a blackish patch that emits scents that attract females), which is hard to miss.

The underside of females is light brown with pale spots forming a chevron (V-shape) on the hindwing. The upperside forewing is black and orange, with some large white or transparent spots on the dark center.

Larvae are dark green with tiny black dots and a dark line along the back; the head is black.

Similar species: The sachem can be distinguished from the various Hesperia species by its more hooked antennae, V-shaped mark, and other details mentioned above.

Key Identifiers

 

Males:

  • Forewing upperside has a very large black stigma.
  • Hindwing underside’s central light orange patch comes to a V-shaped point toward the trailing edge.

Females:

  • Forewing upperside has some white or transparent spots on the dark background.
  • Hindwing underside has a rear-pointing V composed of pale spots.
Size

Wingspan: 1–1½ inches.

sachem_female_wings_spread_brunet2012_3674.jpg

image of a Sachem, Wings Spread
Sachem Female, Wings Spread
On female sachems, the forewing upperside has some white or transparent spots amid the center’s dark background.

Sachem_Male_Rough_Liatris_MDCHQ_9-13-14.jpg

Male sachem nectaring on a rough liatris
Sachem Skipper Male on Rough Blazing Star
On male sachems, the hindwing underside’s central light orange patch comes to a V-shaped point toward the trailing edge.

Sachem_Female_shaded_and_lit_Paintbrush_8-3-13.jpg

Two views of the same female sachem skipper, shaded at left and sunlit at right.
Sachem Female, Shaded and Sunlit
How different the same female sachem looks in shade and in sunlight! But either way, the hindwing underside has the light-colored, rear-pointing V.
Habitat and conservation

As the growing season progresses, this skipper’s numbers increase. By late summer, this is one of the most common skippers in the state, occurring in prairies, fields, vacant lots, and residential areas. Adults are avid flower visitors. Territorial males boldly approach and chase away intruders, especially other insects, but also other animals — even humans!

Foods

The caterpillars eat grasses, including Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon) and crabgrass (Digitaria). Adults drink nectar from a variety of flowers and also take moisture and mineral nutrients from wet ground — mud puddles, damp sand, and so on.

Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Summer resident. It does not overwinter here.

Life cycle

Sachems breed in Missouri from their April arrival into November. By late summer, this is one of the most common skippers in Missouri. Males perch in open, grassy locations waiting for females to approach. They fly out to inspect virtually any animal that comes near. Females lay eggs singly on the leaves of grasses. Caterpillars construct leaf shelters and bring pieces of grass blades back to the tent to eat. No stages of this skipper survive Missouri winters. Starting in spring, sachems that overwinter in states to our south (and their descendants) gradually repopulate our state.

Human connections

“Sachem” is an English-language adaptation of an Algonquian word meaning “chief.” You might have heard the related word “sagamore.” Both terms are used in place-names and as school mascots, especially in New England, the homeland of the Native American tribes whose words they are.

The sachem, the fiery skipper, and the whirlabout (Polites vibex, which does not occur in Missouri) are sometimes called the “three wizards,” apparently because of their zippy flying movements.

Ecosystem connections

Territoriality in butterflies — where males establish an area as their own and chase other males out of — has been studied since the middle 1800s. Charles Darwin devoted a chapter to butterflies in The Descent of Man, discussing how territories and male-male contests can determine which males would beget offspring, and which would not.