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Butterfly Briefs: Swallowtails (family Papilionidae)
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BUTTERFLY BRIEFS

Pipevine Swallowtails (Battus philenor) are large black swallowtails that have blue iridescence on the upper side of their hindwing. Underneath on their hindwing they have a single row of large orange spots in a “C” shape. These butterflies feed on pipevine (Aristolochia sp.) as caterpillars – plants such as Virginia snakeroot and wooly pipevine in Illinois – and keep the toxins from the poisonous pipevine in their body tissues, helping protect them from predators as an adult.

 

Pipevine Swallowtails are the ‘model’ for four common species of large dark butterflies in the eastern U.S.A. that mimic them: Spicebush Swallowtail, Black Swallowtail, dark-form female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, and the Red-spotted Purple. Each of those butterflies gains some protection from looking like a pipevine swallowtail, even though they are not as toxic to predators.

 

These five large dark butterflies can be difficult to tell apart, but it is possible if you know what to look for. Please check out our "Large Dark Butterflies" page or download our free butterfly eGuide for details on how to distinguish each of them based on the type of “blue” they have (iridescence versus blue scales), the type of orange spot pattern they have on the underside of their hindwing, the type of white marks on the upperwings, the presence of marks on their abdomen, and other characteristics.

 

Pipevine Swallowtails have multiple broods each year and can be found flying from spring to fall, with adults frequently visiting flowers for nectar in meadows and road edges near forests and in urban areas. Males also visit wet mud and gravel to get salts for reproduction. Because their blue coloration is a result of iridescence, when they are flapping their wings while flying their hindwings often change from looking black to looking blue, as opposed to the blue always being visible as permanent color with blue scales like their mimics.

 

For more about the pipevine swallowtail, visit mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/pipevine-swallowtail-blue-swallowtail

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BUTTERFLY BRIEFS

The Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus) is a large, black & white-striped butterfly with very long tails. It has a fast, erratic flight and can be found in or near woodlands during spring and summer.

 

Adult Zebra Swallowtails get nectar from a variety of flowers and may also be found getting nutrients from mud or poop. Their caterpillars feed on pawpaw.  Zebra Swallowtails are in a different group than our other swallowtails. They are a ‘kite swallowtail’, and they are the northernmost member of that mostly tropical group. Interestingly, their host plant pawpaw is also the northernmost member of its primarily tropical group of plants.

 

For more about the zebra swallowtail, visit https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/zebra-swallowtail

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BUTTERFLY BRIEFS

Black Swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes) are large black swallowtails with yellow bands on the upper side forewings (males) or cream-colored spots on the upper side forewings (females). The hindwings have blue scaling and a distinct orange spot with a blue center (a “bullseye mark”) on the inner edge of the hindwing. On the underside, they have a complete middle band of orange spots, with one of the orange spots in the middle a “double spot” (a small orange spot is right next to the larger orange spot). They are one of the four common mimics of the toxic Pipevine Swallowtail.

 

These five large dark butterflies can be difficult to tell apart, but it is possible if you know what to look for. Please check out our "Large Dark Butterflies" page or download our free butterfly eGuide for details on how to distinguish each of them based on the type of “blue” they have (iridescence versus blue scales), the type of orange spot pattern they have on the underside of their hindwing, the type of white marks on the upperwings, the presence of marks on their abdomen, and other characteristics.

 

Black Swallowtails have 2-3 broods each year and can be found flying from late spring to fall. They are butterflies of open country and urban areas. Their caterpillars feed on plants in the carrot family, which includes natives such as golden alexander and non-natives such as dill, fennel, parsley, Queen Anne’s lace, and parsnip.  They also feed on rue (the herb). The adults get nectar from many different flowers.

 

For more about the Black Swallowtail, visit mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/black-swallowtail-parsnip-swallowtail

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BUTTERFLY BRIEFS

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is a large, conspicuous butterfly that is one of four “tiger” swallowtail species in North America. Interestingly, while males only have the “tiger” yellow form, females can be either the tiger form or a dark form (see above right) that mimics the toxic Pipevine Swallowtail. The tiger form female has more blue on the hindwings than the male.

 

The dark form female Tiger can be distinguished from the Pipevine and the other three common Pipevine mimics by their “dashes” instead of dots along the edge of their forewing on the upperside and their lack of spots on their abdomen, and in the right light, their tiger stripes can still be seen. Please check out our "Large Dark Butterflies" page or download our free butterfly eGuide for details on how to distinguish each of these five large dark butterflies.

 

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail flies spring to late summer in our area, with adults being common visitors to flowers for nectar and the caterpillars eating a wide variety of host plants such as black cherry and tulip poplar. Males may also be found puddling on wet mud and gravel to get salts for reproduction.

For more about the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, visit www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Papilio-glaucus

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BUTTERFLY BRIEFS

Spicebush Swallowtails (Pterourus troilus) are black above with blue scaling and light blue-white crescents on the hindwings. Below they have two rows of orange spots with blue scaling in-between. One of the middle orange spots is missing, making a blue “comet”. They are one of the four common mimics of the toxic Pipevine Swallowtail.

These five large dark butterflies can be difficult to tell apart, but it is possible if you know what to look for. Please check out our "Large Dark Butterflies" page or download our free butterfly eGuide for details on how to distinguish each of them based on the type of “blue” they have (iridescence versus blue scales), the type of orange spot pattern they have on the underside of their hindwing, the type of white marks on the upperwings, the presence of marks on their abdomen, and other characteristics.

Caterpillars of the Spicebush Swallowtail have eyespots on the anterior and are likely a snake mimic. They feed on northern spicebush and sassafras. Adults can be found in open areas near woods and in urban areas feeding on the nectar of a variety of flowers. Males can also be found puddling on wet gravel, mud, and poop to obtain nutrients for reproduction. They have three broods a year and can be found flying from spring until fall.

For more about the Spicebush Swallowtail, visit mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/spicebush-swallowtail

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BUTTERFLY BRIEFS

Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphontes) are the largest butterflies in North America. On their upperside, they have a distinctive yellow pattern on a dark brown background. On the underside, they are mostly yellow. They move around their forest and meadow habitat with a slow, somewhat “floppy” flight pattern.  Their caterpillars mimic bird poop.

 

Giant swallowtails have two broods a year in our area, one in late spring/early summer and one later in the summer. The adults get nectar from a wide variety of flowers including milkweeds and wild bergamot. The caterpillars feed on members of the citrus family, which in our area includes wafer ash and prickly ash (neither of which related to ash trees).

 

For more about the giant swallowtail, visit mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/giant-swallowtail

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