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The Spicebush Swallowtail: Information for Students and Teachers
Mississippi's state butterfly is the gorgeous spicebush swallowtail. It was designated in 1991 and is one of many swallowtail species that are distributed across the United States, and around the world. This article tells you what you need to know about this wonderful butterfly.
The Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly's Scientific Name
Mississippi's state insect belongs to a group of butterflies that are distributed around the world, from chilly northern regions to steamy tropical zones. Swallowtail butterflies can be found around the world, and some are among the rarest butterflies on the planet. In North America, swallowtails are some of the most familiar butterflies you will see. They are big, beautiful, and often take nectar at flowers in the bright summer sun – among them are the huge, yellow-and-black tiger swallowtail, and the shimmering blue-black pipevine swallowtail. Tropical swallowtail species are among the world's most breathtakingly beautiful insects, with some showing bright shimmering colors and iridescence. This group is known by scientists as the family Papilionidae. It There are many kinds of butterflies in the group, and they all share some special characteristics.
The scientific name of the tiger swallowtail butterfly is Papilio troilus. That means the genus name is Papilio and the species name is troilus. Scientific names are always in italics.
Make sure you take the Quiz at the end of this article before you leave!
Swallowtail Butterfly "Tails"
Swallowtail butterflies likely get their common name from the tails that grace their hindwings, which to the early entomologists who were busy naming insects looked a lot like the forked tails of birds called swallows. Researchers believe that these tails may attract the attention of predators, who are more likely to attack this part of the butterfly rather than the vital body or head. Spicebush swallowtails are no exception – they have spatulate tails that would be hard to miss. So if a hungry bird or lizard snaps at the tail of a spicebush swallowtail, the butterfly will only lose a bit of wing and can live to fly, mate, and reproduce.
In many species the tails have a central spot, reminiscent of an eye. This may further the illusion that the expendable tails on the swallowtail's wings are where the action is for a predator to strike.
Often you will see swallowtail butterflies with the tails missing; in some individuals, the missing part of the wing is in the shape of a bird's beak!
As a middle school teacher myself, I wrote this guide to be useful for both students and teachers. It's a great place to start for research ideas and science fair projects!
The Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar's "Big Eyes"
The caterpillar of the spicebush swallowtail is among the most striking and beautifully colored of all North American species. The ground color ranges from deep emerald green to nearly iridescent golden-orange, but the most arresting markings are two sets of very convincing fake eyes. The caterpillar's real eyes are tiny and not good for much more than sensing light and dark, but the fake eyes are almost guaranteed to give hungry predators second thoughts. Once the caterpillar pops out its osmeterium (see below), the illusion that it's a small but very aggressive snake is complete.
Features of Swallowtail Caterpillars
The caterpillars of the spiecbush swallowtail, and all swallowtails, have some fascinating habits and features. The most distinctive of these is the presence of an organ called an "osmeterium." This is a orange-red, forked gland that the caterpillar can pop out from behind its head when it's disturbed or threatened. The gland looked a lot like a small snake's tongue; it also smells bad. This remarkable evolutionary feature of swallowtail caterpillars is a reiable way to know if the caterpillar you have found is in fact a member of the family Papilionidae.
These caterpillars also tend to make a shelter by drawing the edges of a leaf together with silk, where it rests when it's not feeding.
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Is It Poop, or a Swallowtail Caterpillar?
"Baby" swallowtail caterpillars almost all look something alike no matter what species they are, or where they occur. They are small and dark, with a distinctive white "saddle" mark on the back, which makes the immature larva look exactly like a little bird poop. Needless to say, very few predators are on the lookout for a bit of bird poop on which to feed.
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"Complete metamorphosis" is the term used to describe the life cycle of insects that go through a four-stage sequence of forms. For butterflies, this means egg-larva-cocoon/chrysalis-adult. It helps to take the butterfly as the example, although dragonflies, bees, wasps, flies, beetles, and many other insects also go through complete metamorphosis. Like butterflies, they all have larvae and all of the other developmental stages.
The spicebush swallowtail butterfly is typical of the insects that undergo complete metamorphosis. The egg is laid on a variety if leaves, and the caterpillar that hatches out eats the leaves of the plant. As it grows, it sheds its skin, also known as molting. The stages between molts are called instars, and after the last instar, the caterpillar sheds its skin one more time.
The last time the caterpillar sheds its skin, it enters the cocoon/chrysalis phase, known by scientists as "diapause." It's also called a "pupa." Inside the pupa, the insect's cells are rearranging. They actually break down into a kind of goop, and then reassemble to form the body and wings of the adult butterfly or moth.
The final "instar" occurs when the insect hatches out of the pupal skin. It is now ready to mate and continue the cycle. The adult feeds just enough to promote the goal of mating and laying eggs; other than that, it has no purpose on this planet.
The Spicebush Swallowtail's Range
Mississippi's state butterfly occurs throughout the eastern United States, including, of course, Mississippi. It is much more common in the South than in northern states, although at times it can be found as far north as Michigan and Wisconsin.
Students – Can You Pass This Quiz
For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.
- What is the GENUS of all swallowtail butterflies?
- None of these
- True or False: Swallowtail butterflies only live in North America.
- The _______________ is a forked orange defense organ that all swallowtail caterpillars have.
- True or False: Complete metamorphosis includes four distinct stages.
- The spicebush swallowtail caterpillar has gigantic fake:
- Eye spots
- Fur Tails
- None of these
- Eye spots
Not All Insects are Pests!
It may seem obvious, but some people always seem to need to be reminded: not all insects are pests! The millions of insects that allow us to share their planet (they came first, remember, by tens of millions of years) all have a role in their ecological system, not to mention amazing habits and beautiful, precise designs etched by the constant pressures of natural selection. So before we call the exterminator, or simply bring the foot down on a bug trying to make across the sidewalk, we should think for a second: this little life form is a lot more complicated and valuable than we think.
Check Out These Other Great Insect Articles!
- The State Insect of Alaska: The Four-Spotted Chaser Dragonfly
This article has what you need to know about the beautiful four-spotted chaser dragonfly, including its habits and early forms.
- The State Insect of Florida: The Zebra Longwing Butterfly
This article has what you need to know about the beautiful zebra longwing butterfly (Heliconius charitonius), including its bright warning colors and toxic defense systems.
- The State Insect of Alabama: The Monarch Butterfly
This article has what you need to know about the beautiful monarch butterfly, including its food plants and early forms.
- The State Insect of California: The California Dogface Butterfly
This article has what you need to know about the beautiful California dogface butterfly, including its food plants and early forms.
- The State Insect of Nevada: The Vivid Dancer Damselfly
This article has what you need to know about the beautiful vivid dancer damselfly, including its habits and early forms.
The following sources were used for this guide:
- State Butterfly Mississippi
- Family Papilionidae
- Fed.US Pollinators
- Butterfly Resource
- Spicebush species page
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.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on February 05, 2021:
Bughouse, I love butterflies, and I enjoy reading the article. Thanks for sharing.