Mourning Cloak

Photo of a mourning cloak butterfly perched on a strand of barbed wire.
Scientific Name
Nymphalis antiopa
Nymphalidae (brushfooted butterflies)

Adult mourning cloaks are maroon-brown above with yellow borders. A row of small blue spots run along the inside of the yellow border. Undersides of wings have cream-colored borders on a dark, striated (finely lined) grayish or blackish background. Outer edges of wings are irregular, with a few small projections.

The larvae, sometimes called spiny elm caterpillars, live and feed communally in webs in their host trees. They can reach 2 inches in length and are black with tiny white dots. They have black spines and a line of reddish spots run down the back. The legs are dark red.


Wingspan: 2½–3½ inches.

Where To Find
image of Mourning Cloak Distribution Map


Most frequently seen in woods, but also in open habitats, including parks and roadsides. Most often observed in late August to October and April to May. Adults may be seen flying on warm winter days. They need a body temperature of about 65F to be able to fly. Most butterflies bask in sunlight to raise their body temperature, but mourning cloaks can truly shiver, rapidly contracting muscles with only minimal wing movement. This can raise their temperature 15–20 degrees in just a few minutes.

Larvae are gregarious, feeding in groups on the leaves of hardwood trees including willows, elms, poplars, cottonwood, hackberry, and birch. The adults are attracted to tree sap, decaying fruit, and moist places, only rarely visiting flowers.

A common breeding resident. This is Missouri’s most common species in the genus Nymphalis, for which the Nymphalidae (brushfooted butterfly family) is named. This is the largest family of butterflies in the world. They are characterized by reduced, hairy forelegs that are useless for walking. Others in the family (but not in the genus) include the fritillaries, checkerspots, crescents, painted ladies, commas, buckeye, and viceroy.

Life Cycle

Adult mourning cloaks have long lifespans for butterflies, often surviving for 10 months. Adults overwinter, then mate in spring. Eggs are laid in rings on twigs of host plants, in groups of up to 200 or more. In Missouri a female may have two broods. The larvae live and feed communally in a web. They pupate and emerge as adults in midsummer, feed for a time, then go dormant until fall, when they feed again before winter hibernation. They overwinter beneath loose bark and other tree cavities.

Butterfly collecting is a popular hobby worldwide. The mourning cloak is a circumpolar (global) species. In Britain, this species is called a Camberwell beauty. There, it is a prized species among butterfly collectors. The mourning cloak is also the official state insect of Montana.

The caterpillars are herbivores, controlling the growth of their food plants. All life stages (eggs, larvae, and adults) are vulnerable to predation by animals ranging from ants, beetles, and spiders to birds, reptiles, and mammals. The camouflaged undersides of wings help them evade predators.

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About Butterflies and Moths in Missouri
Butterflies, skippers, and moths belong to an insect order called the Lepidoptera — the "scale-winged" insects. These living jewels have tiny, overlapping scales that cover their wings like shingles. The scales, whether muted or colorful, seem dusty if they rub off on your fingers. Many butterflies and moths are associated with particular types of food plants, which their caterpillars must eat in order to survive.
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