Viceroy Butterfly Puts up a Smokescreen

Dateline:  October 12, 2012*

Viceroy Butterfly Caterpillar makes short order of the leaves of this willow

The Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus) practices mimicry. One theory is that the Müllerian relationship with the milkweed butterflies helps keep the numbers of both species up by fooling birds into thinking they are all rather toxic, so less are eaten as appetizers.

From a distance, hard to distinguish from a monarch or queen, the black line across the hindwing is the giveaway

And, it may just be that all these species are unpleasant to eat. Mind you, I’m not tasting any of them soon, especially since the Viceroy adults are fond of feeding on rotten fruit, feces and carrion.

Ventral view

In Florida, they take on the coloring of the Monarch and Queen butterflies depending upon location within the state. These two milkweed butterflies build up toxins from their host, making them distasteful to predators. Viceroys are said to have a bitter taste from the salicylic acid consumed on its own larval host, the Willow (Salix spp.), Poplar and Cottonwood (Populus spp.), so they have their own off-taste, though it may not be as toxic as the Danaus genus of milkweed eaters.

The caterpillars look a little like bird droppings

The Viceroy has several subspecies giving it a wide and varied range across the United States and Canada. Another interesting aspect of the Viceroy butterfly is the fact that it forms occasional natural hybrids with the red spotted purple (Limenitis astyanax), who’s range covers the eastern half of the US. Although the same genus of butterfly, they are a mimic and a non-mimic. Gives new meaning to embrace all your brothers and sisters.

Different caterpillar instars have different looks. This one is darker so the “saddle” is more prominent

A while ago when I spotted my first viceroy butterfly, I read up on what was needed in the way of a larval host. I then specifically purchased a native willow tree to put next to my pond, which encourages them to reproduce in my garden, not just stop by for a spot of nectar. The same goes for other species of butterflies. Read up on what larval hosts will attract those butterflies that you’d like to see more of and plant it. I have been rewarded many times over, proving that if you plant it they will come.

Visiting Muscadine Grapevine in 2015

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on October 12, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

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