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State Insect of Kentucky -- The Viceroy
Kentucky's' state butterfly is the gorgeous viceroy. It was designated in 1990 and is part of the state's rich biodiversity. This article tells you what you need to know about this wonderful butterfly.
The Viceroy Butterfly's Scientific Name
Kentucky's state insect belongs to a group of butterflies, the Nymphalidae, that are distributed around the world, from chilly northern regions to steamy tropical zones. Northern species are some of the most familiar butterflies you will see, including the monarch. Many are big, beautiful butterflies that often take nectar at flowers in the bright summer sun. There are many kinds of butterflies in the group, and they all share some special characteristics.
The scientific name of the viceroy butterfly is Limenitis archippus. That means the genus name is Limenitis and the species name is archippus. Scientific names are always in italics.
The Family Nymphalidae
The state insect of Kentucky belongs to a group of butterflies that occur nearly everywhere in the world, including some arctic regions. Many of the butterflies you see around you belong to this family, including several state butterflies -- the monarch (Danaus plexippus), for example, and also the mourning cloak (Vanessa antiopa). One of the most common butterflies of the eastern United States, the red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) also belongs to this family.
In tropical zones, Nymphalidae butterflies are among the most intensely colored insects on the wing, which is saying something considering the competition! They are widespread and often very common.
A Fascinating Mimic
As you may have noticed, the viceroy looks almost exactly like the monarch butterfly. In fact, this is where the viceroy butterfly gets its common name -- a regal title to reflect its mimicry of the monarch. The two butterflies have identical coloring and nearly identical markings. The only clear indication is the black band that runs across the viceroy's hindwing. Without this marking, it would be nearly ompossible to tell these two apart.
And yet, they are not closely related. They are in the same family, but not in the same subfamily or genus. The viceroy belongs to a group that is almost all colored in dark shades of black, purple, and blue, with some bearing bold white stripes. None of the viceroy's relatives are orange.
This is known as "mimicry," where a harmless organism attempts to look like a poisonous or stinging one in order to gain protection from predators. For the longest time, certainly when I started studying insects in the 1970's, it was assumed that the viceroy was entirely edible, and it copied the toxic monarch butterfly. This called "Batesian Mimicry," and the monarch-viceroy arrangement was considered a classic example.
The Wrong Kind of Mimicry
Recently, though, scientists who study insects (entomologists) have discovered that the viceroy is also toxic and tastes bad, just like the monarch! This is proof of the power of the scientific method -- keep asking, keep investigating, never accept the obvious, easy answer -- and it changed the way people thought about these species.
Since the viceroy is a monarch mimic, and they both taste bad, it is no longer a case of Batesian mimicry, but instead is properly considered to be Mullerian mimicry. This occurs when two protected species evolve to resemble each other, so predators will not try to mess with any of them. If a bird kills and tries to eat a monarch, it will avoid all monarch-appearing butterflies, thus saving viceroys from attack -- and, of course, vice-versa.
The Viceroy's Early Stages
The viceroy caterpillar looks exactly like a big bird poop. This of course is no accident -- this camouflage protects the caterpillar from being attacked by birds, and may also protect it from attacks by some kinds of predators, especially parasitic wasps and flies. These insects attack caterpillars by landing on its back and laying eggs. These little eggs hatch out and the larvae burrow into the caterpillar, eating the non-essential tissues. After a few weeks the larvae wriggle out and complete their development; the caterpillar dies. It makes sense that the viceroy caterpillar has evolved to discourage these destructive predator.
The viceroy caterpillar eats a variety of leaves, especially different kinds of willow. It begins life as a tiny "baby" caterpillar that eats and sheds its skin for several weeks. When it is full grown it forms a pupa, also known as a chrysalis, From this chrysalis the full-grown adult butterfly will emerge the following spring or summer.
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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 viceroy 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 tine 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.
Have You Seen a Viceroy?
Next time you are out in nature, keep an eye out for this cool butterfly. With their large size and orange and black colors, they look like monarchs -- but look closely, and you will see the tell-tale black band across the viceroy's lower wings. Then you'll know you are in the presence of a world-class mimic!
The following sources were used for this guide:
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.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on January 28, 2021: