Butterflies of Britain & Europe
Hipparchia semele  LINNAEUS, 1758
subfamily - SATYRINAE
subtribe - SATYRINA
 introduction | habitats | lifecycle | adult behaviour

Grayling Hipparchia semele, male, New Forest, Hampshire
The Grayling is distributed across much of Europe, but absent from Greece, northern Scandinavia, and most of the Mediterranean islands. On Corsica it is replaced by the endemic Hipparchia neomiris, and on Crete by H. cretica. The very similar H. aristaeus occurs on Sardinia, Sicily, the Greek islands, mainland Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. Another butterfly with which the Grayling could very easily be confused is Hipparchia pellucida, but that is restricted to Turkey, Cyprus and parts of the Middle East.
The pattern and colouring of the underside markings, particularly those on the hindwings, varies a great deal from site to site, and there is also considerable variation between examples at any given site. Generally speaking, Graylings found on calcareous ( chalk / limestone ) habitats tend to be pale and more greyish than the more earthy looking examples found on heaths and moors. Males have a more acute apex than females, and tend to be smaller in size.

Grayling Hipparchia semele, male, Wareham Heath, Dorset
The Grayling breeds at sun-baked, well drained sites where sheep's fescue or marram grass grow sparsely on otherwise bare ground. In Britain it is primarily a coastal species found on sand dunes, shingle banks, cliffs, undercliffs, limestone pavement and chalk / limestone scree.
It also occurs up to about 20m ( 35km ) inland, on dry heathland and moorland habitats in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Sussex and East Anglia, but has contracted it's range during the last 50 years, become increasingly coastal. On heathlands it occurs mainly along fire breaks or in areas where controlled burning has created a dry grassy habitat with extensive areas of bare ground.
Most Grayling colonies are small, probably numbering less than 20 adults on the peak day of the flight season. There are a few large expanses of dry heathland where the butterfly can be found in hundreds or even thousands, but these are generally comprised of a large number of much smaller colonies which exist in a mosaic of dry / humid heaths, bogs and forested areas.
The butterflies emerge in July and August, and lay their eggs singly on the stems and blades of fine grasses, typically selecting little tufts growing in sunlit depressions, in areas where the grasses grow very sparsely amidst extensive areas of bare ground. Sheep's fescue Festuca ovina is used on chalk or limestone habitats, bristle bent Agrostis setacea on heathland, and marram Ammophila araenaria on sand dunes. A much wider range of grass species is used in continental Europe.
The larva hatches after about 2-3 weeks. Like most Satyrine larvae it feeds nocturnally, and during daylight hides away at the base of a grass clump. It hibernates from September to March, when it resumes feeding and becomes fully grown in late May or early June.
The mature larva is a dull yellowish brown colour, with whitish-edged dark stripes along the back and sides. When ready to pupate it wanders a short distance and burrows just beneath the surface of the soil, where the change to the pupa takes place.
The pupa is reddish brown, shiny and smooth, with a hooked abdomen. It is formed among soil just below the surface of the ground, in a silk-lined cell. The pupal stage lasts for about 3 - 4 weeks.

Grayling Hipparchia semele, perfectly disguised at rest on dead wood, New Forest, Hampshire
Adult behaviour


The marbled underside wings are a superb example of disruptive patterning, enabling the butterfly to blend perfectly into a variety of different environments. The butterfly spends long periods at rest, and is equally well concealed when resting on tree trunks, bare earth, shingle or rocks.


When disturbed, Graylings take flight instantly, twisting and looping rapidly, just above the ground, before re-settling nearby on bare earth or on a tree trunk or fallen branch. When settling at ground level they usually rest on a pale object such as a stone or a piece of dry wood.


Upon landing they snap their wings shut, but raise the forewings so that the eyespot near the apex is visible. This way, any bird which spots where they have landed, and attacks, is likely to aim at the eyespot rather than at the body of the butterfly. Once the Grayling feels safe, it lowers the forewing to hide the eyespot behind the hindwing.


In cool conditions the butterflies tilt over to present the maximum area of wing surface to the sun, which quickly raises their body temperature. This enables them to maintain high energy levels, and remain alert at all times, instantly ready to fly up and intercept potential mates. In hot conditions they tilt their wings in the opposite direction to avoid over-heating, by minimising the amount of sunlight hitting the wings. This form of thermoregulation is commonly known as tilt-basking.


Grayling Hipparchia semele, male, Silchester Common, Hampshire


Favourite nectar sources include bell heather and cross leaved heath. Graylings often settle head-downwards when nectaring at these plants, enabling them to reach more easily into the drooping flowers with their proboscises. When feeding at other flowers such as marjoram, hemp agrimony, valerian or bramble they settle conventionally. The butterflies also commonly imbibe sap from pine trunks at heathland sites, and from ash trunks at calcareous habitats.


Grayling Hipparchia semele, female, Arnside Knott, Cumbria


Grayling Hipparchia semele, male, Arnside Knott, Cumbria


Hipparchia semele, male, Arnside Knott, Cumbria


Graylings do not normally open their wings when settled, but copulated females will do so briefly when approached by a second intruding male, or by an intruding human. At such times the wings are held half open or fully open for 3 or 4 seconds, displaying the richly coloured upperside and prominent ocelli. I have observed this on several occasions and drawn the conclusion that this reaction probably functions to startle or deter avian and reptilian predators.


Normally the butterflies rest at ground level, but at some sites they prefer to settle on tree trunks, and at sites in northern and western England they habitually settle on dry-stone walls. In July 2007 at Wareham Heath I found a male settled on a log. Every time I approached, it flew up, then circled around me and resettled on the same log. Despite this apparent territorial behaviour, Graylings do not normally appear to actively defend their "territories" against other males, but simply use them as perches from which to intercept passing females.


Observations at Arnside Knott in July 2009 showed males often share their territories, e.g. I found one small patch of scree on which 5 males were settled. However, other observation contradict this - on 2 other occasions I watched solitary males at rest, neither of which were wary, allowing me to approach very closely for photography. On both occasions while I was crouched in front of the insect another Grayling flew by, triggering the settled male to dart up instantly and intercept it. A battle ensued in which the pair spiralled to a height of about 2 metres, chasing each other rapidly in tight circles until the intruding male was driven off. The "owner" of the scree patch then dashed instantly back to reclaim his patch, landing right in front of me. In both instances each of the Graylings had distinctive nicks in the wings which enabled me to positively ascertain which of the pair "owned" the territory and reclaimed it.


Grayling Hipparchia semele, mating pair, Aish Tor, Dartmoor, Devon



The following account of the fascinating courtship ritual is adapted from a paper by Tinbergen :
When a male intercepts a female the pair quickly settle on the ground, sometimes amongst grasses or at other times on rocks or fallen branches. The male lands behind the female, and then walks around her until they are facing each other. If the female has already been mated she signals her unwillingness to copulate by fluttering her wings. On the other hand if she is a virgin she remains stationary and the male flicks his forewings upwards to display the ocellus at the apex.  A moment later he begins his full display, flicking his wings open and shut several times in rapid succession. He then fully opens his rapidly vibrating wings while leaning forward, as if bowing to the female. Next he slowly closes his wings, trapping the female's antennae between them, "combing" them with his forewings so that her antennae are rubbed against the androconia ( pheromone producing scales ) on the upperside of his forewings. This effectively seduces the female. The male then quickly walks around her until he is alongside, but slightly behind her, allowing him to curve his abdomen forward to make sexual contact. Once copulated he then straightens up so the pair face away from each other.


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