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Black Butterfly Identification: A Guide to Black and Dark-Colored Butterflies of North America

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Black and Dark-Colored Butterfly Identification

If you saw a black butterfly and you're wondering what kind it is, this guide can help. It has clear, easy to understand descriptions and useful photos that will help you identify the black or dark-colored butterfly you saw.

There are not many all-black butterflies in North America, but many have a black or dark ground color. This guide includes those butterflies as well, since often that is the most noticeable feature.

black-butterfly-identification

Tiger Swallowtail, Dark Phase Female

Tiger swallowtails are big, beautiful butterflies that are typically identified by their bold yellow-and-black stripes, hence their common name. However many females emerge from the chrysalis not yellow at all – instead, they are almost entirely dark smoky brown or even black. They have all of the other markings typical of the species, except for the signature yellow-black striping.

It's been proposed that this color pattern mimics the toxic (and therefore protected from predators) pipevine swallowtail, Battus philenor. There are many other butterflies that have the same black-with-blue-hindwings coloration of B. philenor, so it does seem possible that the dark tiger swallowtails are gaining some protection by sharing in the mimicry complex.

Tiger swallowtails have an unusual life history. The adults are on the wing in mid-summer, wheeling high among the branches of ash and cherry trees, where the big females lay their eggs. The caterpillar, which is green with little "false eye" spots near its head, feeds until it is about half grown, and then builds a little shelter by pulling together the edges of a leaf. It overwinters in this shelter, and in the spring emerges to continue feeding. It will pupate in early summer, and then the adults hatch to complete the process.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Papilio glaucus
  • What does it eat? Willow, wild cherry, and other trees
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? No, this species has a wide range.
  • Where does it occur? This species occurs throughout the eastern US; there are similar species throughout North America.
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of the food plant you found it on.
black-butterfly-identification

Red-Spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis astyanax)

The red-spotted purple is a beautiful butterfly with a dark brown, nearly black ground color, marked on the trailing edges of the hind wings with shimmering, iridescent blue. On the underside, it has a complex pattern of orange and red spots. Individuals of this species in the northern part of its range have a bright white stripe across both wings; this butterfly is commonly known as the "white admiral."

Those readers familiar with the viceroy butterfly, the remarkably accurate mimic of the monarch butterfly, may know that it is closely related to the red-spotted purple. The fact that these two species are so closely related makes the radical difference between them even more amazing.

The red-spotted purple is especially beautiful on the underside, so if you ever get to see one up close, you'll want to keep your camera handy.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Limenitis arthemis astyanax
  • What does it eat? Willows and other trees
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? No, this species has a wide range.
  • Where does it occur? This species occurs throughout the eastern US.
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of the food plant you found it on.
black-butterfly-identification

Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)

This truly beautiful insect is part of a large group of tropical swallowtails that often have iridescent blue or green on their wings. This widely distributed genus (Battus) includes some of the most striking swallowtail butterflies in the tropics. The pipeline swallowtail is usually found only in the southern states, but it has been spotted as far north as Manitoba, especially later in the summer as multiple broods spread north. Still, if you see a large dark butterfly anywhere north of the Carolinas or Missouri, you should not expect it to be a pipevine swallowtail – there are many other similar looking butterflies that are much more common in the north.

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This insect is believed to be the model for a number of other species that mimic its blue-on-black coloring. The larvae and the adult may be poisonous or distasteful to predators like birds and lizards, making it a good idea to look the same whether or not you yourself are poisonous.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Battus philenor
  • What does it eat? Vines in the Aristolochia group
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually
  • Is it rare? No, this species is common throughout its range.
  • Where does it occur? This species is most common in the southeastern US.
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of the food plant you found it on.
black-butterfly-identification

Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charithonia)

This beautiful butterfly is a signature part of the fauna of Florida, and you will see it fluttering among flowers in city gardens and roadsides. The butterfly is very much limited in the United States to the southern part of the country. The zebra butterfly is also very common throughout Mexico and into Central America.

One interesting habit of the zebra is communal roosting. As the day winds down, many individuals will find each other and "sleep" at night in groups of over 50, dispersing in the morning to nectar at a variety of flowers. Adults also consume pollen from flowers, and unusual behavior for butterflies. The caterpillars are white with black spines and feed on passionflower vines, whose toxic sap gives them chemical protection from predators.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Heliconius charithonia
  • What does it eat? The caterpillar feeds on passionflowers; the adult butterfly also feeds on pollen.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? No, although it's less common the further north you go.
  • Where does it occur? American tropics
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of leaves from the food plant.
black-butterfly-identification

Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)

You can sometimes see this beautiful butterfly flying over patches of melting snow on warm early spring days. It is one of several butterfly species that can overwinter as the adult, hiding in sheltered places during the winter months to emerge once the weather turns warmer.

The mourning cloak is related to the angle wings, and has irregular wing borders just like those insects. The mourning cloak, however, has a unique and gorgeous appearance. The ground color is deep purple-brown; the borders are yellow, but just inside that is a band of black with royal-blue spots. It's a subtle but sublime insect, and while it's common in North America, it's regarded as one of the rare prizes of collectors in the UK, where it has been known as The Camberwell Beauty.

The caterpillar feeds on elm and is very spiny; it features a row of red spots along its back. They are harmless.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Nymphalis antiopa
  • What does it eat? The caterpillar feeds on elms
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? No, it is a very common species
  • Where does it occur? Throughout the eastern US
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of leaves from the food plant.
black-butterfly-identification

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

The red admiral is not really a black butterfly, but in flight its chocolate-brown ground color makes it appear darker than it really is. Some entomologists think the red admiral is a mimic of the monarch, though the monarch is bigger, brighter, and has different flight habits. Is it possible that we are witnessing a species in the process of changing to become a more accurate mimic?

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Vanessa atalanta
  • What does it eat? Like others in this group, the caterpillar feeds on nettles
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? No, but this species has a fairly limited range.
  • Where does it occur? This species can be found throughout the US, southern Canada, and Mexico.
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of leaves from the food plant.
black-butterfly-identification

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

This gorgeous black butterfly is very common throughout its range in the eastern US, and there are several very similar species that occur throughout the American West and Southwest. The male, which has more yellow on its hind wings is also smaller; the female black swallowtail has much more blue on its hindwings, making it yet another North American butterfly that resembles the poisonous pipeline swallowtail.

Black swallowtails have a very interesting caterpillar. Like all swallowtail caterpillars, it has an organ called an "osmeterium" that it can pop out from behind its head when it feels threatened. The osmeterium looks like a snake's tongue and smells like rotten fruit. Quite a cool adaptation!

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Papilio polyxenes
  • What does it eat? Carrots, dill, parsley, and related plants; also meadow rue
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? It can sometimes strip the leaves from garden plants.
  • Is it rare? No, this species has a wide range.
  • Where does it occur? This species occurs throughout the eastern US; there are many closely related species throughout North America.
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, these caterpillars are easy to raise.
black-butterfly-identification

Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)

The giant swallowtail is one of the biggest butterflies in North America, and seeing one visiting flowers in your garden is a memorable moment. The ground color is deep brown, so it's not exactly a black butterfly, but in flight it appears to be dark. It's a predominantly southern species, but it can be found farther north in recent years.

The caterpillar of this species closely resembles a large bird dropping, which would serve to deter birds and other predators. In the American South, these big caterpillars are often called "orange dogs" for their choice of food plant: citrus trees, especially orange and lemon. In some cases they can cause damage to young trees.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Papilio cresphontes
  • What does it eat? The leaves of citrus trees
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Sometimes
  • Is it rare? No, this species is generally common throughout its range.
  • Where does it occur? This species is most common in the southeastern US.
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of the food plant you found it on.
black-butterfly-identification

Dusky and Sooty Wings

These very dark-colored butterflies are small and often go unnoticed. However they can be among the most common Lepidoptera in a sunny field, flying low and visiting flowers like violets and dandelions. Observed up close, some of these fiarly drab-seeming butterflies are actually quite beautiful, with an iridescent sheen to their wings.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Family Hesperiidae
  • What does it eat? Many different common plants and "weeds"
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? No
  • Where does it occur? Throughout North America
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of the food plant you found it on.

Hope You Found Your Black or Dark-Colored Butterfly!

This guide covers most of the more common dark-colored butterflies you're likely to see in the US Thank you for reading!

Resources

The following sources were used for this guide:

https://wisconsinbutterflies.org/butterfly/species/127-common-sootywing

https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/

https://www.si.edu/spotlight/buginfo/butterflyus

https://www.thebutterflynetwork.org/program/butterflies-and-moths-north-america

https://www.fredsbughouse.com/




This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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