At first sight, the Meadow brown butterfly might seem a little drab – certainly next to its colourful cousins, like the Peacock or the Red Admiral – but the more I have photographed it (particularly fresh specimens) the more I have come to appreciate what a truly beautiful insect it is.
The Meadow Brown, Maniola jurtina (Linnaeus, 1758), is one of the most widespread and common of European butterflies, even though it has suffered as a result of many of its grassland habitats being turned into monocultures of cereals. Nevertheless, perhaps because it is such a generalist and its caterpillars can feed on a wide range of host plants (grasses), numbers remain roughly stable throughout Europe (Van Swaay, et al., 2019). It is probably more localised than it was previously, but it seems that it might to be something of a ‘winner’ in the butterfly climate change sweepstakes (Bowler et al., 2015), where some (most) species are predicted to decline and others (the minority) might increase their abundance and distributions, if we give them a chance. Projected change in butterfly abundance under climate change vary from –92% (The dark green fritillary, Argynnis aglaja) to +68% (The Meadow Brown, Maniola jurtina) (Isaac et al., 2011).
The Meadow brown is a master of variation. There at least 16 subspecies – probably more for all I know! – throughout its wide Palearctic range; from North Africa, Europe to central Scandinavia and Asia to Western Siberia. There are four subspecies in the UK (see UK Butterflies) but the commonest and by far the most widespread is Maniola jurtina ssp. insularis (Thomson, 1969). That’s the one you will see, unless you are in Ireland, the Isles of Scilly, NW Scotland, the Isle of Man, and the Hebrides.
As well as the widespread Meadow Brown (M. jurtina), there are also six other less widespread Maniola species, including three rare island endemics: M. chia on the Greek island of Chios, M. cypricola Cyprus and M. nurag on Sardinia. Certainly worth a holiday, I think, to go and try and see them! Although, apparently these Maniola species are almost indistinguishable morphologically! Indeed, some modern research – using mitochondrial and nuclear genetic markers – concludes that all seven species within the Maniola genus melt together into a single species complex (Kreuzinger et al., 2015). Probably much to the chagrin of traditional lepidopterists, these researches suggest considering the whole genus as one “super species” M. jurtina.
A nice illustration of the large morphological variation in butterflies of the genus Maniola was provided in a paper by Grill et al. (2004) (below).
Considering them all as one big super species is OK by me, as I am not very good at spotting the differences anyway! I have managed to take quite a lot of photos of the subspecies Maniola jurtina hispulla, but I only know this because it is the only one in Spain! (I think! Perhaps others drift in now and again?). Some, like the beautiful male shown below, do look rather different, but the problem is they don’t all look like this!
Male and female Meadow browns can usually be separated using their underwing markings (check out a good butterfly guide) but the differences are most apparent on the uppersides (as shown below). I once came across a courting couple of Meadow browns, and documented their courtship behaviour.
Of course the attractive, mottled brown of the hind-wing underside has a purpose: crypsis! So when they rest on the ground, tilted slightly upwads towards the sun – absorbing its warmth – they are also nicely camouflaged (see below). For more about wing surfaces in thermoregulation, see Dennis (2020).
The Meadow brown is a univoltine species (just one generation a year) and individuals can live for quite along time throughout the summer. Consequently, some of the older, venerable Maniolas, as I like to call them, can become very worn and tatty in appearance! (see below).
The Dusky meadow brown (Hyponephele lycaon) – a species which is found in some parts of Europe, but not the UK – is very similar to M. jurtina, but gives itself away by having a second forewing ocellus (spot) (see below).
There is a lot more that could be written about the Meadow brown, which has been studied by a host of eminent lepidopterists in the past. I have included links to some sites illustrating the biology and ecology of this butterfly (below). The genome sequence of M. jurtina has recently been published (Singh et al., 2020) – there are about 36,000 genes – so we can expect lots of fascinating discoveries about this variable and venerable species in the future!
DE Bowler, P Haase, I Kröncke, O Tackenberg …. (2015). A cross-taxon analysis of the impact of climate change on abundance trends in central Europe. Biological Conservation, 187, 41-50.
Dennis, R. L. (2020). Butterfly Biology Systems: Connections and Interactions in Life History and Behaviour. CABI publishing.
Grill, A., de Vos, R., & van Arkel, J. (2004). The shape of endemics: Notes on male and female genitalia in the genus Maniola (Schrank, 1801),(Lepidoptera, Nymphalidae, Satyrinae). Contributions to Zoology, 73(4), 293-303.
Isaac, Nick J.B.; Girardello, Marco; Brereton, Tom M.; Roy, David B.. (2011). Butterfly abundance in a warming climate: patterns
in space and time are not congruent. Journal of Insect Conservation, 15. 233-240. 10.1007/s10841-010-9340-0
Kreuzinger, A. J., Fiedler, K., Letsch, H., & Grill, A. (2015). Tracing the radiation of Maniola (Nymphalidae) butterflies: new insights from phylogeography hint at one single incompletely differentiated species complex. Ecology and Evolution, 5(1), 46-58.
Singh, K. S., Hosken, D. J., Wedell, N., Ffrench-Constant, R., Bass, C., Baxter, S., … & Sharma, M. D. (2020). De novo genome assembly of the meadow brown butterfly, Maniola jurtina. G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics, 10(5), 1477-1484.
Van Swaay, C. A., Dennis, E. B., Schmucki, R., Sevilleja, C., Balalaikins, M., Botham, M., … & Roy, D. B. (2019). The EU Butterfly Indicator for Grassland species: 1990-2017. Technical report.