In nature no insect is quite like the swallowtail.
Swallowtail butterflies have extensions on their hind wings that resemble the tail of a swallow. This feature makes swallowtails an easy group of butterflies to recognize.
Swallowtails are big butterflies with wingspans from two to nearly six inches. Some of these butterflies are easy to identify, too. The swallowtails with bold black-and-white stripes are tiger swallowtails. And the black swallowtails… are black swallowtails.
Swallowtail caterpillars are distinct from one another, and their appearance helps protect them from predators. Giant swallowtail caterpillars are dark with irregular white markings. They resemble bird droppings–a mimicry that puts off would-be predators. The tiger swallowtail and spicebush swallowtail caterpillars have large eyespots toward the rear of their bodies. These eyespots divert predators from the insect’s head. A spicebush swallowtail larva will also curl a leaf, wrap up in it, secure it with a strand of silk, and hide in its makeshift shelter.
All true swallowtail caterpillars have a unique defense: Each has a Y-shaped gland on its body that can emit a foul odor when the insect is disturbed.
Discover more about all swallowtail species with the MDC’s Field Guide.