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The lower surfaces of the back wings are yellowish and have only a few black dots; there are characteristic white marks the immediate vicinity of these. The species exhibits one kind of sexual dimorphism: male butterflies are colored bright gold-red on the upper side of wing, while the females have broader orange wings with a dark design.
A generation appears from mid-July to mid-September.
Eggs are laid on dried-out plant parts, for example on dry sorrel stems. The eggs are white in color and somewhat larger than those of other Lycaena species. The caterpillars are green and nocturnal and eat sorrel. Lycaena virgaureae is the only species of this genus whose eggs last over the winter. The butterflies feed on blossoms of such plants as the ground-elder, Eupatorium, Valeriana, and burnet saxifrage.
Lycaena virgaureae lives preferably on flower-rich, dry and damp meadows in Central Europe. In Spain it is found in the Pyrenees and in the Cantabrian Mountains. In southern France it is found in the Massif Central. Its area of distribution reaches the Arctic Circle in Fennoscandia in the north; in the south it reaches north and northwest Greece. In Belgium there are a few threatened populations in the south of the country. It is not found, however, on the British Isles or the Netherlands. It can be found as far east as Mongolia. The scarce copper is found at elevations of 1,000 to 2,000 meters.
- Lycaena virgaureae montanus Meyer-Dür, 1851. Found in the Alps in France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and Austria at elevations of 1,700–2,000 metres (5,600–6,600 ft).
- Lycaena virgaureae miegii Vogel, 1857. North and central Spain at elevations of 600–1,600 m (2,000–5,200 ft).