Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus). Swallowtail butterfly family. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Swallowtail Butterfly Family

 

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) Swallowtail Butterfly family. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Swallowtail butterfly family includes large, attention-demanding butterflies. Swallowtail butterflies are classified as members of the subfamily Papilionidae (Swallowtails) of the order Lepidoptera (butterflies, skippers and moths). The family also includes the Parnassian butterflies. There aren’t any Parnassian butterflies in the East Coast region of North America and I don’t discuss them here.

 

Population

There are between 475 and 563 species of Swallowtail butterflies worldwide. Swallowtails are found worldwide except in the Arctic. The Swallowtail butterfly family has many wonderful species in the tropical areas of the world. Of the subfamily Papilioninae, called “true swallowtails”, there are between 460 and 490 species worldwide with 28 of those species in North America; 12 species are

in the East Coast region (Maine to Florida). Of the 12 species in the East Coast region, 9 are year around residents and 2 are strays.

 

How Swallowtails Differ from other Butterflies

What scientists call the “true swallowtails” have distinctive “tails” on their hindwings. The tails are projections which aid the butterfly during flight.

 

Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) sipping nectar from Joe-Pye Weed. Swallowtail butterfly family

Adult Life Cycle Stage

The adult Swallowtails are large butterflies that can’t be missed. Many, if not most of the swallowtails, are black butterflies with other colors on their wings. The colors can be yellow, orange, red, green or blue. Many species have iridescent blue, black or green background wing color.

The males and females often have different markings, which need close inspection to see and distinguish. A good field guide on book on butterflies help to identify the species and explore the markings in more depth.

Swallowtails prefer to feed from tall plants. My Joe-Pye Weed stands about seven feet tall in my garden. When it is in bloom, I am always thrilled to see a Swallowtail with wings spread wide as it sips nectar from the tiny flowers. Adult butterflies sip nectar, baby butterflies (caterpillars) eat plants.

The males Swallowtails like to “puddle”. “Puddling” is gathering at a wet muddy or sandy spot and sipping minerals from the moisture. Puddling takes place at puddles, streamsides, and seeps, which are areas where water trickles up out of the ground and forms a pool.

Mating

Male Swallowtails either patrol or perch to find females. Their behavior to perch or patrol depends on the specie.

 

Flight Style

Swallowtails are strong fliers with large wings . Many Swallowtails continuously flap their wings when sipping nectar from flowers.

The Swallowtail family members have a very distinctive extension on their hind wings look like a tail. This tail resembles the wings of a swallow in flight. This is where the “swallowtail” name comes from. Scientists think the hindwing tails help to divert airflow over the wings and enable the butterflies to glide at angles higher than butterflies without hind wing tails. Butterflies without hind wing tails would stall and not be able to glide at high altitudes.

 

Egg Life Cycle Stage

For such a large butterfly you would expect them to come from large eggs and they do. The Swallowtail eggs are large, plain and generally round. One egg is laid on a newly emerged leaf.

 

Caterpillar Life Cycle Stage

Most Swallowtail larva look like bird droppings. Who wants to eat a bird dropping? That is precisely the point. The bird dropping appearance probably stops many animals who would eat a Swallowtail larva from trying.

Swallowtail caterpillars have an organ that no other known butterflies have, called a osmeterium. This is orange-colored, Y-shaped organs, which are located behind the head and are raised and waved when the caterpillar feels threatened.  I poked at the Black Swallowtail caterpillar in the photo above and the orange osmeterium was waved at me. You can just see it in this photo. I must admit, it scared me, just a little.

 

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) in Joe-Pye Weed in my garden. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Host Plants

Most of the Swallowtail larva (caterpillars) feed at night on specific food plants called host plants.

The body chemistry of Swallowtail caterpillar is able to digest plants with chemicals (aristolchic acids, furnocoumarins, and acetogenins) which make the caterpillars taste bad. Some species are emetic, which means eating them makes birds and other vertebrates vomit.

Swallowtails prefer to feed from tall plants. My Joe-Pye Weed plants stands about seven feet tall in my garden. When it is in bloom, I am always thrilled to see a Swallowtail with wings spread wide as it sips nectar from the tiny flowers. Adult butterflies sip nectar, baby butterflies (caterpillars) eat plants.

 

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyyxenes) butterfly chrysalis by Meganmccarty Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Swallowtail butterfly family.

Chrysalis Life Cycle Stage and How the Swallowtail Butterfly Spends the Winter

Most species spend the winter as a chrysalis. All of the North American species of Swallowtails o

The caterpillar may wander several feet from its hostplant to find a place to pupate or turn into a chrysalis. Chrysalis overwinter as pupae (chrysalis). In winter the caterpillar rests in a stage called diapause, not like hibernation but similar. The chrysalis spends the winter under or attached to a stone, piece of bark, in under leaf litter or other protected sites near the ground. Here is another example of the importance of leaf litter. The chrysalis is suspended from a surface by a silk thread acts as a sling or girdle. A hook bearing structure at the tail end of the chrysalis attaches the chrysalis to a little pad of silk, which is stuck to a surface from which the chrysalis hangs.

Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) butterfly chrysalis by Meganmccarty Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Swallowtail butterfly family.

 

The Swallowtail Butterflies in the East Coast region of North America

  • Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus)
  • Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)
  • Polydamas Swallowtail (Battus polydamas)
  • Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
  • Canadian Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio canadensis)
  • Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio trolilus)
  • Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)
  • Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)
  • Palamedes Swallowtail (Papilio palamedes)
  • Schaus’ Swallowtail (Papilio aristodemus) – extreme south Florida
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus). Swallowtail butterfly family. Photo by Donna L. Long.

The four Swallowtail Butterfly species I see regularly in Philadelphia are:

  1. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
  2. Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)
  3. Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)
  4. Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus)

 

Links to other posts and websites

Facts about Butterflies and Moths

Pollinator Syndromes: How to Predict Which Flowers Insects Will Like

The Butterfly Egg and Where to Find It

The Caterpillar

Chrysalis Into Butterfly

The Adult Butterfly

Migrating Monarch at Cape May State Park

Butterflies of Philadelphia: A Checklist

Websites

North American Butterfly Association http://www.naba.org/

Butterflies and Moths of North America: Collecting and Sharing Data about Lepidoptera – link to photos http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/taxonomy

Regional Checklist’s – for around the North and South America and the Caribbeanhttp://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/checklists

Hosts: The Hostplant Database https://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/data/hostplants/search/index.dsml

References

Butterflies of the East Coast  by Rick Cech and Guy Tudor

Butterfly Photographer’s Handbook by William B. Folsom

Caterpillars in the Field and Garden: A Field Guide to the Butterfly Caterpillars of North America – covers western caterpillars

Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner

Caterpillars of Western North America – I couldn’t  find  book that covered caterpillars of the western part of North America

Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars of North America by Amy Barlett Wright (suitable for use with kids)

Peterson’s Guide to Eastern Butterflies by Paul A. Opler and Vichai Malikul

Peterson’s Guide to Western Butterflies

Peterson First Guide to Butterflies and Moths by Paul A. Opler (suitable for use with kids)

Please feel free to comment, share a resource or ask and question in the comments below.

2 comments

  1. My yard is a flutter with the 20 zebra swallowtails I’ve hatched in my home and.set free. This being the third litter, how do I know what will be the last generation before winter and how should I overwinter the chrysalis?

    • This is a very interesting question. I researched for an answer a found this one in, The Butterflies of North America James A. Scott.

      “Sometimes eggs, larvae, or pupae go into diapause in the laboratory and refuse to develop further. This can be prevented in many cases by shining a light on them constantly. Individuals in diapause can be overwintered using large clay planting pots purchased from garden centers ( the unglazed kind semipermeable to water); plug the hole in the bottom, place the individuals in small open containers in the pot (cheesecloths prevents their escape from the containers), bury the pots three-fourths of the way into the ground, and cover it with with a lid (the saucer for a larger pot). Avoid a sunny hot place where they will cook or dry out, and in drought water the lid occasionally. This pot will provide natural temperatures and moderate humidity. When the food plant is available in late winter or early spring, bring them indoors and they should develop normally.” pages 510-511, The Butterflies of North America: A Natural History and Field Guide by James A. Scott, Stanford University Press, 1986.

      So, making sure the butterflies do not have light shining on them constantly so they can naturally enter diapause. When the butterflies go into diapause (a kind of hibernation) then place them in the clay pots and following the instructions should keep them until next spring. The butterflies can tell the season just like we can. Good luck They will naturally know the time of year.

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