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These elegant and beautiful butterflies are not the most brightly colored, but they can be seen in the Alps riding the uprising wind currents with wings outstretched and motionless. This type of soaring flight is common in birds and very rare in insects. Apollo was a Greek god of the mountains and vegetation that later became the sun god. Thus it is believed this graceful creature has been aptly named.
The Apollo butterfly is one of the families of butterflies known as the swallowtails. Although it is not unlike them in shape, it lacks the tail like appendage on the hind wing that has given this family their name. This butterfly, like its relatives are mostly white with spots and eye like markings of black and red. They are found in the mountainous regions of Europe from Scandinavia to the Alps and Pyrenees. About 30 species of the Apollo butterflies are known with some species ranging up to 20,000 feet in the Himalayas. Due to their inaccessible habitat many of the Central Asiatic species are very rare and considered a prize by collectors.
Caterpillars of the common Apollo are black with red spots. When they are fully grown they spin a cocoon in which to pupate. With this butterfly growth is slow, taking up to two years to complete their life. The larva feeds on orpine, which is a kind of stonecrop and saxifrages. Although the habit of spinning a cocoon is very unusual among butterflies it is believed the Apollo butterfly does this as protection from frost in the high altitudes where it makes its home. Since the common Apollo is the only butterfly of the species that habitually flies at low altitudes its body structure is believed to serve as an alpine kit. In most cases the body is covered with hairs that looks almost like a fur coat. The body is dark, which aids in the absorption of heat from the sun. The Apollo’s wings are larger than most butterflies in proportion to their body and expose a greater area to the suns rays. The wings are thinly covered with scales and are almost translucent which also appears to help with the absorption of heat.
The North American species of the Apollo butterfly, Parnassius autocrator, produces a caterpillar that is bright orange in color. But tending to mar the beauty of this creature, it is known to give off a highly unpleasant odor from just behind its head when it is threatened by danger. All the Apollo and swallowtail larvae have an organ called the osmaterium located behind their head that gives of an odor. But in most case this is faint and not considered to be unpleasant to the human nose.