In the natural world, animals learn not only to survive, but also to adapt to a wide range of habitats and their surrounding environment. This incredible capability allows them to evolve over time. One way is through mimicry — a similarity between species often to take advantage of the other’s merits.
Like many people, I can’t wait for butterflies to return in the summer. For the past few years, I have been trying to learn more about the habitat requirements for these flying jewels and how to correctly identify them. However, viceroys have fooled me more than once. These butterflies, masters of mimicry, look just like monarchs to an untrained observer. So how can you be sure which species you’re seeing?
The viceroy (Limenitis archippus) is a North American butterfly that ranges through most of the contiguous United States as well as parts of Canada and Mexico. They are normally found in moist areas where willows grow. Considered a monarch look-alike, viceroy butterflies in the north are more orange, similar to monarch butterflies. In the south, they are more rusty in color, similar to queen butterflies.
The key difference between viceroys and monarchs is their size, although this may be difficult to see in the field. Viceroy wings span 2½–33/8 inches compared to monarch’s 33/8–47/8 inches. The wing pattern and coloring of a monarch and viceroy are nearly identical. However, a viceroy has a black line that runs across its hind wing. Viceroys fly much faster and more erratically than a monarch’s smooth, float-like flight.
Viceroys do not migrate. The larvae, which resemble bird droppings, overwinter rolled up in a leaf of their host plant. In the spring, the larvae need about 15 days to complete their life cycle and become a butterfly. Host plants for viceroy butterflies include willow, poplars, and cottonwoods. Females lay eggs on the tips of leaves, and hatchling caterpillars eat the leaves from the tip. Caterpillars range in color from olive green to brown, and they grow over 2,500 times their size from birth before they pupate.
The viceroy’s major defense against predators is mimicry. Birds that have not been exposed to monarchs willingly eat viceroys, but those that have tasted the unpalatable monarch refuse to touch the mimic. Butterflies are important pollinators. To help these flying jewels, plant a variety of native flowers. Your garden will be a hotbed of butterfly activity.
—Story and photograph by Noppadol Paothong
The drastic decline of the monarch spurred action in Missouri and across the U.S. The department is working with Missourians for Monarchs, a collaboration of more than 30 agencies and organizations, committed to creating and maintaining 19,000 acres of pollinator habitat annually for the next 20 years.
Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler