Big Bend Conservancy
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Aug. 19, 2006, 12:50AMThe snouts come out in enormous numbersBy GARY CLARKSplat! Splat! Splat!ADVERTISEMENT Every minute of every mile on a July road trip along U.S. 90 between San Antonio and Marathon, we watched hundreds of American snout butterflies go splat against our truck's windshield.At every place we stopped — bakery stores, gas stations — we saw other cars dotted with similar splats. Tiny butterflies fluttered in the air like brown snowflakes, covering bushes and trees and feeding on spilled soda pop in the parking lots of convenience stores.Birds were having the feast of their lives, picking dead snouts off automobile grills and snatching live ones off bushes. No house sparrow worth its salt was without a beak stuffed with snouts.So massive were the numbers of American snouts that they drew press coverage from across the nation. And their ubiquitous presence was on the lips — quite literally in some cases — of everyone in Southwest Texas.Snouts are fairly common butterflies in North America from the mid-Atlantic states to the desert Southwest. In Houston, a walk in a park any time between April and November will most certainly stir up a few. They just don't normally show up in hordes.The 1 1/2 -inch snouts are rather drab brown butterflies with orange wing patches accented by white dots and long labial palpi that extend from their heads in the form of wiry snouts. When perched with wings closed, snouts look like dead leaves. They rarely draw attention except when they spring forth like a swarm of locusts.Actually, sudden swarms of snouts occur annually in the Rio Grande Valley, although not typically on the scale of what happened from the Hill Country to the Big Bend this summer. Out there, the millions of snouts in the skies were not only rare but also stupefying."Swarms of snouts on the scale that occurred from San Antonio to West Texas occur only about once a decade," state entomologist Mike Quinn said. "Scientists have found that such outbreaks of snouts follow widespread rain preceded by a significant period of drought."The rains enabled the spiny hackberry (Celtis pallida) to sprout new leaves that are a prime food source for snout caterpillars. Also, the preceding drought years reduced populations of insect predators such as wasps and praying mantids (aka praying mantises) that devour snout caterpillars.Consequently, conditions were ripe for the mass emergence of snouts.In Big Bend National Park, we saw them swarming on mountaintops and in canyons, deserts and riverside campgrounds. But after a few weeks, their numbers diminished — butterflies don't live long — and the splat of snouts on our truck windshield ended.Naturalist Gary Clark and photographer Kathy Adams Clark can be reached at http://home.houston.rr.com/wondersofnature/.
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