Butterflies of Slovenia
prepared by Paul Tout & Domen Stanič
photos: Paul Tout, Domen Stanič & Sara Cernich
For such a small country, Slovenia is amazingly diverse. After all, the distance from the closest point on the Adriatic coast (Ankaran) to top of its highest peak (Triglav 2,864 metres) is just 88 kilometres (55 miles) as the crow flies. This enormous diversity in landscape, climate and topography is reflected in the country’s biodiversity and no more so than in the 179 species of butterflies regularly recorded within its 20,000 km². To put that in context Great Britain and Ireland (315,159 km², about 16 times as large) has 58 resident (or reintroduced) species plus about a dozen regular or almost regular vagrants from the continent or North America. Some of the species in Slovenia are confined to the areas with a Mediterranean climate while others, some of them very rare such as False Ringlet Coenonympha oedippus and Purple-shot Copper Lycaena alciphron are more typical of peatbogs and wetlands. Another environment rich in species, particularly in ringlets of the genus Erebia, including the endemic Lorkovic’s Brassy Ringlet E. calcaria, only described in 1953, are the high Alps above 1500 metres where more than a dozen species are found.
In geographical terms, the Primorska region in southwest Slovenia has the highest butterfly diversity in the country. Its limestone karstic ridges, dry grasslands, rich meadows and open woodlands represent an ideal mix of diverse habitats for butterflies. In some areas, species of different biogeographical zones (Mediterranean, Continental, Alpine) can be found all at the same site.
An example of butterfly diversity hotspot is the Karst edge (Kraški rob) where in a 5x5 km UTM census square up to 129 species were recorded (Verovnik et al 2012).
The diversity of species changes through the seasons. The peak of occurrence starts at the end of May and reaches its maximum in mid-July. This time is usually anticipated in the warmer, southwestern part of Slovenia to the end of June (Verovnik et al 2012).
Below follows a presentation of the most characteristic and interesting species, arranged in systematic order. A complete check-list of the butterflies of Slovenia can be downloaded at the end of the page.
PRESENTATION OF THE SPECIES
By far the commonest Skippers are the Large Ochlodes sylvanus, Dingy Erynnis tages and Grizzled Skippers Pyrgus malvae which are found on rough ground and scrubland throughout the country, but another 19 species are present including the spectacular Large Chequered Skipper Heteropterus morpheus with its bouncing flight, on the wing widely in June and July and the uncommon Chequered Skipper Carterocephalus palaemon found in hilly regions. The multibrooded Mallow Skipper Carcharodus alceae is found in dry stony meadows and similar habitats where the foodplant is common, while the very localised Tufted Marbled Skipper Carcharodus floccifera lives in two distinct habitats: wet meadows and dry grasslands.
Grizzled Skipper Pyrgus malvae
Large Chequered Skipper Heteropterus morpheus
Tufted Marbled Skipper Carcharodus floccifera
Chequered Skipper Carterocephalus palaemon
With 5 species found in Slovenia, the Swallowtail family contains some of the most spectacular species. Some, like the Common Papilio machaon and Scarce Swallowtails Iphiclides podalirius are frequent to abundant at various times during the summer, even in gardens on lavender. Others are rarer, such as the Apollo Parnassius apollo in stony grassland above 800 metres in the parts of the Julian and Dinaric Alps, the Clouded Apollo Parnassius mnemosyne found on upland Karstic grasslands and the Southern Festoon Zerynthia polyxena, on the wing in early spring in open habitats, particularly in the Karst.
Scarce Swallowtail Iphiclides podalirius
Apollo Parnassius apollo
Southern Festoon Zerynthia polyxena
Clouded Apollo Parnassius mnemosyne
The 18 species of “whites” make the Pieridae one of the largest families of butterflies in Slovenia. Some are difficult to distinguish like the three species of Wood White Leptidea sp. or the 5 species of “small whites" but others, such as the abundant Orange-tip Anthocharis cardamines and Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni are easy. The most spectacular species, however, and often abundant in midsummer in the higher areas of the Karst where plants of the soft-thistle Jurinea mollis are in flower, is the Black-veined White Aporia crataegi, the nests of larvae of which usually found on blackthorn Prunus spinosa and other members of the Rosaceae. Clouded Yellows Colias sp., on the other hand can be seen from April right through to Christmas in mild years.
As with the rest of Europe there is just a single species of the Riodinidae in Slovenia, the Duke of Burgundy Hamearis lucina found right across the country in two broods between April and late summer wherever the foodplant (usually Primrose Primula sp.) is present. In hotter areas close to the coast where the foodplant is confined to dolines and shady north-facing slopes, the butterfly is never far away.
One of the first butterflies on the wing in spring in Slovenia is the widespread Green Hairstreak Callophrys rubi, from mid-March close to the coast but are nowhere to be found by mid-summer. The decline in Elms Ulmus sp. due to disease has hit one species, the White-letter Hairstreak Satyrium w-album very hard and the populations are now small and isolated. Of the remaining six hairstreak species, three are absent from Britain and Northern Ireland, the Blue-spot Satyrium spini, Ilex S. ilicis and Sloe Hairstreaks S. acaciae, the latter increasing strongly in range in recent years as dry grasslands scrub over.
Black-veined White Aporia crataegi
Green Hairstreak Callophrys rubi
Duke of Burgundy Hamearis lucina
Ilex Hairstreak Satyrium ilicis
Suprisingly, unlike elsewhere in Europe, the most widespread and abundant species of the genus Lycaena is not the Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas but the Sooty Copper Lycaena tityrus, both being found in 3 or 4 broods in most flowery meadows from early in the year and on until the first frosts. Of the remaining four species, there are also the fairly widespread Large Copper Lycaena dispar of the rutilus subspecies, frequent in wetlands away from the coast and the less widespread and scarcer Purple-shot Lycaena alciphron, Purple-edged Lycaena hippothoe and Scarce Coppers Lycaena virgaureae.
Large Copper Lycaena dispar
Purple-shot Copper Lycaena alciphron
Scarce Copper Lycaena virgaureae
Purple-edged Copper Lycaena hippothoe
With 34 species, the ‘blues’ are the largest subfamily by far. In late summer some dry grassland sites are host to “clouds” of “blues” where the males gather around puddles to obtain water and salts. Scarce species sought by visitors to Slovenia searching for butterflies include the Chequered Blue Scolitantides orion, common at dry, stony sites with plenty of stonecrop Sedum sp., the Eastern Baton Blue Pseudophilotes vicrama found at rocky grasslands with an abundance of Savory Satureja sp. and the four (perhaps five) species of “large blues”. The Large Blue Phengaris arion itself is found in dry pasture on Thyme Thymus sp., the Scarce Large Blue Phengaris teleius in damp meadows whose larvae feed initially on Great Burnet Sanguisorba officinalis and the Alcon / Rebel’s Blue Phengaris alcon which uses various gentians Gentiana sp. In the extreme north-east of Slovenia the Dusky Large Blue Phengaris nausithous is common and also uses Great Burnet. Among the several widespread species of "blues" we can mention the Chalkhill Blue Polyommatus coridon which is found on limestone grasslands and can be very abundand in the Alps in mid-summer.
Eastern Baton Blue Pseudophilotes vicrama
Chequered Blue Scolitantides orion
Chalkhill Blue Polyommatus coridon
Scarce Large Blue Phengaris teleius
The thirteen species of fritillaries that feed mostly on violets Viola sp. are a wonderful sight for naturalists from north-western Europe where this group is now generally rather rare with lots of local extinctions. The commonest is usually the Silver-washed Fritillary Argynnis paphia, on the wing and often abundant from June to September, even in gardens. Two other species, often attracted to Lime Tilia sp. in flower and with fluctuating populations are the High Brown Argynnis adippe and Niobe Fritillary Argynnis niobe. Apart from the several high Alpine species, the most widespread small violet-feeding species is the multibrooded Weaver’s Fritillary Boloria dia. Among the other widespread fritillaries there are the Queen of Spain Issoria lathonia, Marbled Brenthis daphne and Lesser Marbled Brenthis ino, while the Twin-spot Fritillary Brenthis hecate is common only in the south-west.
The Nettle-tree Butterfly Libythea celtis is the only member of its (sub)family and feeds, as one might expect, on the Nettle-tree Celtis australis, a deciduous tree with a circum-Mediterranean distribution. Therefore the butterfly is confined to areas close to the coast where the tree, planted or native, is present. Butterflies can be seen out of hibernation in March and then all the way through to October and is often fairly common in areas where the tree is frequent.
Silver-washed Fritillary Argynnis paphia
Twin-spot Fritillary Brenthis hecate
Queen of Spain Fritillary Issoria lathonia
Nettle-tree Butterfly Libythea celtis
There are 18 species belonging to the group of "admirals, tortoiseshells and their allies" in Slovenia. Some such as the Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta and Large Tortoiseshell Nymphalis polychloros are virtually ubiquitous and can even be seen on mild days in midwinter in warm areas close to the coast. Others, such as the nettle-feeding Small Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae, Peacock Aglais io and Map Butterfly Araschnia levana are more local and confined to mountainous areas where the larval foodplant is common. The Camberwell Beauty Nymphalis antiopa is an uncommon woodland species with a very patchy distribution, with more notable densities only in northeastern Slovenia. Another interesting and very rare butterfly is the Southern Comma Polygonia egea, only found in the warmest parts of the Primorska region, where its larvae feed on Pellitory Parietaria sp.
Two of the most sought after are also the glider species, the Common Neptis sappho and the Hungarian Glider Neptis rivularis, while in mountainous areas both the Poplar Admiral Limenitis populi and Purple Emperor Apatura iris are widely distributed and locally common from midsummer onwards. On the other hand the Southern White Admiral Limenitis reducta and the Lesser Purple Emperor Apatura ilia are more lowland species.
Small Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae
Camberwell Beauty Nymphalis antiopa
Poplar Admiral Limenitis populi
Peacock Aglais io
Southern Comma Polygonia egea
Purple Emperor Apatura iris
The large group of "marsh" and "heath" fritillaries has 11 species in Slovenia and although it is not a unit in systematic terms, the species are best treated together as they are usually found in similar open habitats. The first, the “marsh” fritillaries of the genus Euphydryas has just a single well distributed species, the Marsh Fritillary Euphydryas aurinia, while the Asian E. intermedia and Scarce Fritillary E. maturna are local in Slovenia and confined to the uplands. In open habitats there is a ‘calendar’ of seven Melitaea species beginning with the Glanville Fritillary Melitaea cinxia in April and ending with with the last Heath Fritillaries M. athalia emerging in late September.
Marsh Fritillary Euphydryas aurinia
Glanville Fritillary Melitaea cinxia
Scarce Fritillary Euphydryas maturna
Heath Fritillary Melitaea athalia
With 15 species, from early April through to the end of October there are always one or more species of “brown” or “heath” on the wing, While the commonest are those that you would expect; Small Heath Coenonympha pamphilus and Meadow Brown Maniola jurtina, other species such as the False Ringlet Coenonympha oedippus are very localised and globally threatened species. Both Wall Brown Lasiommata megera and Large Wall Brown Lasiommata maera are common and widely distributed, while the Woodland Brown Lopinga achine has its strongholds in the Dinaric mountains and on the foothills of the Alps. The Gatekeeper Pyronia tithonus seems not to like cold winters and is not found far from the coast. One interesting species, the Chestnut Heath Coenonympha glycerion, is now believed extinct in Italy but is still found right up to the border between the two countries in Slovenian territory.
Large Wall Brown Lasiommata maera
False Ringlet Coenonympha oedippus
Woodland Brown Lopinga achine
Chestnut Heath Coenonympha glycerion
The 16 species of “true” ringlets Erebia are a fascinating group and include a species endemic to the Julian Alps in NW Slovenia and NE Italy, Lorkovic’s Brassy Ringlet Erebia calcaria, described in 1953 and easy to find on Mount Mangart in August. This large group containing many very similar species is believed to have come about via speciation that took place in the long series of glaciations that struck the Alps, the last finishing about 12,000 years ago. The various species occupy woodland, scrub and open habitats from about 500 metres above sea level (Woodland Ringlet Erebia medusa, Arran Brown Erebia ligea) all the way up to the top of the highest mountains in Slovenia (Dewy Ringlet E. pandrose and Sooty Ringlet E. pluto), the latter above 2100 metres!
Woodland Ringlet Erebia medusa
Lorkovic's Brassy Ringlet Erebia calcaria
Arran Brown Erebia ligea
Dewy Ringlet Erebia pandrose
The Marbled White Melanargia galathea is the commonest and most widespread butterfly in Slovenia, first emerging in the second half of May close to the coast with stragglers still on the wing in September in the Alps. The lovely big graylings are a feature of rocky woodland and grassland from mid-summer onwards and although several species such as the Hermit Chazara briseis and Tree Grayling Hipparchia statilinus have declined seriously in recent years. The Woodland Grayling Hipparchia fagi, the huge ‘blue-eyed’ Dryad Minois dryas and the Great Banded Grayling Brintesia circe remain widespread in Slovenia, while the Great Sooty Satyr Satyrus ferula, the Grayling Hipparchia semele and the False Grayling Arethusana arethusa are a feature of dry rocky grasslands in western Slovenia.
Marbled White Melanargia galathea
False Grayling Arethusana arethusa
Great Sooty Satyr Satyrus ferula
Great Banded Grayling Brintesia circe
Complete check-list of the butterflies of Slovenia
click on the PDF icon to view
References & recommended reading
Polak S. 1968. Metulji Notranjske in Primorske: slikovni priročnik za določanje dnevnih metuljev v naravi. Postojna - Notranjski Muzej, Cerknica - Notranjski regijski park.
Verovnik R., Rebeušek F., Jež M. 2012. Atlas dnevnih metuljev (Lepidoptera: Rhopalocera) Slovenije, Atlas of butterflies (Lepidoptera: Rhopalocera) of Slovenia. Center za kartografijo favne in flore, Miklavž na Dravskem polju.