Wild South Florida — Viceroy Butterfly
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Viceroy Butterfly
viceroy butterfly
A viceroy butterfly, spotted at Fern Forest Nature Center in Coconut Creeek.
Viceroy Butterfly  

The viceroy butterfly, Limentis archippus, is an imposter. Then again, maybe he's for real. We're talking about mimicry here, and the eat-me-and-you'll-die defense that some creatures employ to ward off predators. More on that in a minute, but first some nuts-and-bolts about the viceroy.

The first thing you notice about the viceroy is how closely it resembles the monarch butterfly. The colors are the same and the wing patterns are similar. Both are members of the Nymphalidae family, as is a third butterfly we'll talk about here, the queen.

The most obvious way to tell the species apart is the arcing line on the hind wings. Monarchs don't have that; viceroys do. The similarites between the two butterflies are important, but again, more on that later.

The viceroy is fairly large as butterlies go, with a wingspan between two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half inches. It ranges as far north as Canada's Northwest Territories, southward along western mountain ranges, through all of the eastern United States, southward into Florida and Mexico.

Host plants include willow trees, poplars and cottonwoods. Females lay their eggs on the tips of the leaves, usually no more than two or three per plant. According to Butterflies and Moths of North America, caterpillars eat their shells, then go to work eating the leaves of the host. Caterpillers make a ball of poop, leaf bit and silk and dangle it from the leaf they are munching on, possibly to distract predators. By eating the leaves of willows, etc., the young critters pick up solicylic acid, the compound from which aspirin is derived.

Viceroy Butterfly

The diets of adults vary according to the time of year (although we're guessing not so much here in Florida because of its warmer climate). Early in the season, when the first generation of the year emerges, viceroys will dine on the honeydew of aphids, dead animals, dung and decaying fungi. Later generations will nectar on asters, golden rod, joe-pye weed, Spanish needles, thistles etc. Viceroys like moist habitats, hanging out on the edges of swamps, wetlands, wet meadows and roadsides.

In northern parts of its range, viceroys will produce two or three generations during a season. In Florida, they reproduce year round.

The interesting thing about the viceroy is that its color varies according to the population of other butterfly species in territories that it inhabits. In places where monarchs are common, it will copy the monarch's deep orange. Where monarchs are rare, and queen butterflies are common, it will pick up the brownish orange of the queen. The variations matter, because both the monarch and the queen practice the eat-me-and-you-die defense.


The idea isn't so much to kill the predator but rather make it so sick that it won't ever touch a member of that species (or anything that looks like it) again. Aversion therapy if you will.

Their orange colors signal predators, birds in particular, to stay away and find lunch elsewhere. By mimicking the colors of the dominant species in a particular area, the viceroys are piggy-backing on their defenses.

In some cases, one species will be an imposter — it will mimic another but won't have the same deadly characteristic, really relying on the other species for its defense. This is called Batesian mimicry.

But in the case of monarchs and viceroys, the mimicry contributes to the defense of both. Monarchs, of course, acquire cardenolide poisons by eating milkweeds as caterpillars. Same with queens. Likewise, viceroys give predators headaches because of all the solicylic acid they take in as from their days munching on willows et al. This kind of mimicry is called Mullerian, after 19th century German naturalist Johann Friedrich Theodor "Fritz" Muller. Your science lesson (and mine) for the day.

Viceroy Butterfly
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