Great spangled fritillary adults are large, rusty orange butterflies with black or dark brown markings; the base of the wings is somewhat darker. The undersides of the hindwings have prominent silvery white spots on a dark brown background, with a tan band along the outer margin. Females are darker above than males.
The caterpillars are black, with black spines that are yellowish orange at the base. The head is nearly black with some orange across the top.
Similar species: This is the most common fritillary in eastern North America. To our north, east, and west, there are other species that look confusingly similar. Here in Missouri, the great spangled is by far the most common fritillary.
- Missouri's next-most-common fritillary is the regal fritillary (S. idalia), a Missouri Species of Conservation Concern that is declining and vulnerable to extirpation everywhere it occurs. It used to be far more common but is now almost completely extirpated from eastern North America. It is now found only in high-quality tallgrass prairies. Its hindwings are distinctively blackish-gray and filled with bright silvery spots.
- The Diana fritillary (S. diana) is listed as "accidental" in Missouri, which generally means that individuals only occasionally find their way into our state from nearby populations. The Diana is common in the southern Appalachians, and there are other populations in eastern Oklahoma and in Arkansas. Dianas have historically been recorded from Kansas City and St. Louis regions, but in our state you are most likely to see them in extreme south-southwestern Missouri. Dianas are large and impressively beautiful, with males and females looking almost completely different. Females are black and blue, and males are orangish-rust and dark brown. They are a forest species.
- The variegated fritillary (Euptoieta claudia) is smaller (about the size of a buckeye butterfly) and lacks bright, silvery hindwing spots. Near the center of the forewing, on both sides, there is a dark-edged light spot, that helps identify it. It occurs statewide but is seldom common, and the populations that manage to overwinter here are augmented each May and June by new migrants from the south.
- The Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) consistently strays here from the south, breeding and forming colonies in Missouri wherever passion flower (Maypops) grows. They usually are seen in the western half of the state, apparently coming from Texas. Between May and the first freeze, this species may pull off three generations in Missouri. Butterfly hobbiests sometimes rear Gulf fritillaries from eggs in their gardens, and these fritillaries might appear in your neighborhood, too. This butterfly has elongated wings, and the underside silvery spots are elongated, too. The upperside is bright orange with relatively few markings: black marks along the margins, and a few black-rimmed white spots on the forewing.
Wingspan: 2½–3½ inches.
Habitat and Conservation
Found in open, moist places, including prairies, fields, open woodland edges, wet meadows, and residential areas.
Larvae feed on plants in the genus Viola — the many species of violets. The adults visit a great variety of flowers, including many types of coneflowers, thistles, milkweeds, ironweeds, dogbanes, verbenas, mints, clovers, and more.
Common breeding resident. Pronunciation of fritillary is "FRIT-uh-larry."
Adults fly from mid-May through early October. Males emerge two or three weeks before females; they patrol in open areas, waiting for females to fly near. Female butterflies generally mate very soon after emerging. Great spangled fritillary females tend to mate only once, so early-emerging males have an advantage over later-emerging males. Eggs are deposited singly on or near violets in late summer or fall. The caterpillars hatch but do not feed and grow; instead, they overwinter, then eat and grow in the spring, just when their food plant, violets, are also freshly growing and peaking.
The great spangled fritillary is often one of the first really impressive butterflies to show up in home flower gardens. And they often show up in numbers.
Who doesn’t like butterflies? Butterfly gardening is a booming and well-defined sector of the landscaping and horticultural industries. Garden centers often have special sections devoted to butterfly gardeners.
MDC and several other conservation organizations want to help you get started in native plant gardening, which helps butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. When you grow native flowers, shrubs, and trees, you expand the habitat, territory, and food available to birds, butterflies, and other native organisms. You also have interesting native plants you can brag about, and feel good about planting.
What's with the word "fritillary"? Apparently it shares a history with the name Fritillaria, used for a mostly Eurasian genus of flowering bulb plants in the lily family. Those flowers got their name from botanists who used Latin words for "dice cup" (a checkered box used to carry dice in) to describe the intricate checkered markings on the flower petals of some of the species in that genus. (Some western North American relatives are known as "yellow bells," "checker lily," "chocolate lily," "mission bells," and "lily root.") Apparently the intricate checkered markings of fritillary butterflies seemed similar.
The caterpillars are herbivores that graze on violets. The adults serve a role in pollination. All stages provide food for predators.
About nine subspecies of great spangled fritillary have been identified. This wide-ranging North American species lives in many different regions, each with its own suite of environmental pressures influencing color and form. Some West Coast subspecies are strongly sexually dimorphic (with males and females looking different): females may be nearly black with pale yellow outer wing bands, while males are the more typical orange. Another subspecies, in the Four Corners area, is on average much smaller. Some Canadian subspecies are smaller and paler. It would be tempting to consider these all different species, but because they interbreed with nearby populations of other subspecies and produce offspring that have intermediate traits, it makes sense to consider them all one species.