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Swallowtail Butterfly Identification: A Quick and Easy Guide to North American Species (With Pictures)

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Pixabay.com

Pixabay.com

Common Swallowtail Butterflies of North America, North of Mexico

Swallowtail butterflies are among world's most striking and common butterflies. In the US and Canada, there are many species that may be familiar to you. If you have an interest in entomology (the study of insects), if you garden, or if you simply notice and appreciate the natural world, this guide to the more often-seen swallowtail butterflies of the US and Canada is for you.

The goal of this guide is to help you identify the butterfly you saw, and to understand a little more about its habits, food plants, and distribution. Every species listed in the guide includes the following "basic" information:

  • What is the scientific name?
  • What does it eat?
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees?
  • Is it rare?
  • Where does it occur?
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult?

We hope that this guide to swallowtail butterflies helps you identify the butterfly you saw, and gain a deeper appreciation for the natural world!

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Eastern Tiger (Papilio glaucus)

These big, beautiful butterflies can be identified by their bold yellow-and-black stripes, hence their common name. 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.

These tigers have an unusual life history. 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.

Another interesting fact about the tiger swallowtail is that some females, especially in the southern parts of its range, are often not striped at all, but are instead colored a smokey, dark brown. Scientists have suggested that the reason for this "dimorphic" phase is in order to mimic the bad-tasting pipevine swallowtail (below), which is generally more common in the South than in the North.

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.
An unusual female tiger swallowtail, showing partial dark-phase coloration.

An unusual female tiger swallowtail, showing partial dark-phase coloration.

swallowtail-butterflies-of-north-america

Western Tiger (Papilio rutulus)

This butterfly is the western version of the eastern tiger (there are other, less common versions in Canada and the Appalachian region). Like the eastern tiger swallowtail, these are big, beautiful butterflies with yellow-and-black stripes. They have basically the same habits and early stages as the other members of the genus Glaucus, although western tigers use cottonwood, willow, and quaking aspen as food plants.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Papilio rutulus
  • What does it eat? cottonwood, willow, and aspen
  • 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 western 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.
Range of the western tiger swallowtail

Range of the western tiger swallowtail

The two-tailed swallowtail

The two-tailed swallowtail

Two-Tailed Swallowtail (Papilio multicaudatus)

Although this enormous butterfly only occurs in parts of the Southwest, it can be quite common in the right time and place. The two-tailed swallowtail is similar to the tiger swallowtail, but as the name implies, it features a pair of tails on the hindwing. The early stages are also quite similar, but this species includes chokecherry, bitter cherry, Arizona rosewood, single-leaf ash, hoptree, and Arizona sycamore as food plants for the larva.

The two-tailed swallowtail is the state butterfly of Arizona.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Papilio multicaudatus
  • What does it eat? Chokecherry, bitter cherry, Arizona rosewood, and more
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No.
  • Is it rare? No, but this species has a narrow range.
  • Where does it occur? This species occurs in much of the southwestern United States
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes

Read More From Owlcation

swallowtail-butterflies-of-north-america

Palamedes Swallowtail (Papilio palamedes)

This huge, gorgeous butterfly is truly a swamp-dweller. It has a fairly restricted range, centered in the American Southeast. You may find it in wet, wooded areas and roadsides from Louisiana through Florida and up the coast to Maryland, but not more than a few hundred miles inland at any point. Within this range it can be quite common, often appearing in numbers.

The caterpillar is similar to the spicebush swallowtail (below), with false eyes designed to scare away predators. It feeds on redbay, swampbay, and white sassafras.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Papilio palamedes
  • What does it eat? Swamp plants, including bays and sassafrass
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? No, but it has a limited range
  • Where does it occur? This species occurs in wet swampy areas and savannahs throughout the southeastern seaboard.
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes
Swallowtail caterpillar showing the osmeterium (top)

Swallowtail caterpillar showing the osmeterium (top)

Papilio Caterpillars and the Osmeterium

Caterpillars in the family Papilionidae all share some common features, but perhaps the most unusual of these is the presence of a gland called an "osmeterium." This is a red-orange, forked organ that the caterpillar pops out when it is bothered or threatened. The osmeterium resembles the forked tongue of a snake; it also smells foul. All swallowtail caterpillars have one, and it may help protect the insect by scaring off an attacking predator.

swallowtail-butterflies-of-north-america

Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)

This beautiful insect is the northernmost species of a large tropical genus (Battus) that includes some of the most striking swallowtail butterflies in the tropics, which is saying something. The pipeline swallowtail is generally limited to the southern states, but it has been spotted as far south as Mexico and as far north as Manitoba, especially later in the summer as multiple broods spread north.

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.
swallowtail-butterflies-of-north-america

Gold Rim (Battus polydamus)

This butterfly is closely related to the pipevine swallowtail (they are in the same genus). The early stages and food plants are all similar, as well. One of the main differences between the two is the range – while the pipevine swallowtail can be found northward into the American Midwest, the gold rim is only found in the far South, generally close to the Gulf Coast.

This butterfly is not often seen, but it can be quite common at the right time and place.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Battus polydamus
  • What does it eat? Vines in the Aristolochia group
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually
  • Is it rare? No, although it is not as common as many of the other swallowtails in this guide
  • Where does it occur? Along the Gulf Coast, into Mexico
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of the food plant you found it on.
swallowtail-butterflies-of-north-america

Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)

Like the pipevine swallowtail (above), this is a generally southern species that sometimes ranges as far north as Canada. The caterpillar 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 sight of a big, beautiful giant swallowtail swooping around your garden plants is one you are not likely to soon forget!

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.
swallowtail-butterflies-of-north-america

Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus)

This beautiful insect is aptly named, with black stripes on a clear white background. Like the giant swallowtail (above), it is a northern representative of a group of butterflies that have many varieties throughout the Neotropics. You will seldom find this species outside of the southern states, but it will sometimes wander north, for example along the Mississippi River Valley.

This swallowtail flies lower to the ground than some other species, and they will often stop to nectar. At these times you may see several visiting the same nectar source. Males also participate in a behavior known as "puddling," which is when a group of butterflies congregates at wet sand or mud to draw nutrients.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Protographium marcellus
  • What does it eat? The larvae eat the leaves of pawpaw trees
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • 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.
swallowtail-butterflies-of-north-america

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

This common butterfly occurs in one form or another over pretty much the entire North American continent. I chose to picture the male, which has more yellow on its hind wings; the female black swallowtail is larger and has much more blue on its hindwings, making it yet another North American butterfly that resembles the poisonous pipeline swallowtail (below).

Black swallowtails have a very striking caterpillar, often called the "carrot-worm" because it eats, you guessed it, carrots. Other food plants include dill and parsley.

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 swallowtail caterpillar

Black swallowtail caterpillar

The anise swallowtail

The anise swallowtail

Anise Swallowtail: Papilio zelicaon

The anise swallowtail is something like the western version of the common black swallowtail (above). The butterfly has a much more yellow on the wings in both sexes, but the early stages are all very similar. The caterpillar feeds on plants in the carrot family, including fennel and anise.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Papilio zelicaon
  • 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 western US; there are several related species throughout North America.
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, these caterpillars are easy to raise.
swallowtail-butterflies-of-north-america

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus)

This beautiful swallowtail is a typically southern species, and within its range it can be one of the most common butterflies on the wing. It is occasionally found northward, into the Midwest, and occasionally as far north as Canada.

The sexes are dimorphic, with the females having a blue "cloud" over the hindwings, and males featuring similar markings in pale green. These markings give this butterfly one of its common names, the green-clouded swallowtail.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Papilio troilus
  • What does it eat? Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), white sassafras (Sassafras albidum), and a few other plants
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? Very common within its range
  • Where does it occur? This species occurs throughout the eastern US, occasionally showing up as far north as Canada
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes
Caterpillar of the spicebush swallowtail, showing false eye-spots

Caterpillar of the spicebush swallowtail, showing false eye-spots

Papilio machaon, very similar to the Oregon swallowtail

Papilio machaon, very similar to the Oregon swallowtail

Oregon Swallowtail: Papilio machaon oregonensis

The Oregon swallowtail is the North American representative of the Papilio machaon species complex. It is a subspecies of the nominate P. machaon, which occurs throughout Eurasia. Our subspecies is named "oregonensis" to reflect its distribution in the Pacific Northwest.

The Oregon swallowtail is a beautiful insect with a limited range, but it can still be found in the right time and place. It generally resembles North American tiger swallowtails, but the early stages reveal a closer connection to North American P. polyxenes species (black swallowtails and relatives).

The Oregon swallowtail is featured on a US postage stamp.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Papilio machaon oregonensis
  • What does it eat? Tarragon sagebrush
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No.
  • Is it rare? Seldom seen, due mostly to a very restricted range
  • Where does it occur? This species occurs in some parts of the Pacific Northwest.
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, it is possible
Parnassius swallowtails look very different from most of their relatives

Parnassius swallowtails look very different from most of their relatives

The Parnassius Group

The adult butterflies may not look like swallowtails, but the early stages of this large group of butterflies bear the features of the family Papilionidae. The caterpillars, for example, possess osmeterium, which no other group of butterflies has.

Parnassius butterflies are typically found in mountainous regions, where they can be difficult to observe or collect; this has made some species and subspecies highly desirable among collectors who simply want to possess a rare animal and are willing to pay substantial amounts of money for one. Unscrupulous collectors have gone to great lengths to track down, kill, and sell Parnassius butterflies, as well as several other rare groups. It's very important to make the distinction between this kind of exploitation and the legitimate work of scientists, who may take specimens in order to better understand and describe the insects they study.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Genus Parnassius
  • What does it eat? Species of plants belonging to the Papaveraceae and Crassulaceae families
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? Some species and subspecies are among the rarest of insects
  • Where does it occur? Worldwide; North American species are found exclusively in mountainous regions of the West.
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Not advisable; there may be laws in place limiting this activity
If you are lucky, you may come across a ruby-spotted swallowtail

If you are lucky, you may come across a ruby-spotted swallowtail

One to Watch for: The Ruby-Spotted Swallowtail (Parides anchisiades)

The genus Parides is a very large and variable group of swallowtails that ranges from Mexico throughout Central and South America. Although this group of butterflies is not generally included as part of the fauna of the US, a few species can be found infrequently in southern Texas and Arizona, sometimes straying as far north as Kansas.

The ruby-spotted swallowtail is a gorgeous butterfly with deep black wings and a brilliant red spot on the hindwing. They feed at lantana and other flowers with the characteristic wing-flutter of many swallowtails. If you are in the far Southwest of the US, keep an eye out for these impressive creatures -- you might get lucky and see one!

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Parides anchisiades
  • What does it eat? Citrus and other plants in the family Rutaceae
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not typically
  • Is it rare? This species has a wide range, but it is rare north of Mexico
  • Where does it occur? Generally found in tropical climates
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you can find an ovipositing female

Resources

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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