Viceroy butterfly

Update of part of post from November 30, 2012

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The viceroy butterfly is a medium-sized insect living throughout much of North America. I’m not going to take the time to explain the difference between the viceroy butterfly and the monarch butterfly again since I just talked about that two weeks ago. If you missed that, or you want to read it again, you can learn about their differences here under the second section.

Surprisingly, the viceroy butterfly got its name because it mimics the monarch butterfly. A monarch, not the butterfly, is a word for a king or queen of a country, and a viceroy is a ruler that controls a smaller area. Similarly, the monarch butterfly is larger, has a larger area, and is more dangerous than the viceroy butterfly, which mimics it

Viceroy butterflies are mostly orange, with a thick stripe of black around the edges of their wings. The bodies of these butterflies are black as well. They also have thinner black stripes on the wings. In the black area around the edge, viceroys have two rows of white spots. Although I do not know this is true of every viceroy butterfly, the one above looks like each pair of two white dots corresponds to the section of orange right above it.

As with the monarch butterfly, the viceroy has received recognition for being such a common butterfly. This insect are the state butterfly of Kentucky.

Mimicry

The picture below shows a viceroy butterfly (left) and a monarch butterfly (right). Though I won’t talk about the differences between them, you can see how similar they are.

Viceroy butterflies benefit from looking like monarchs. Since monarchs taste bad to predators, an animal that has had a bad experience with a monarch butterfly will likely not want to take a chance with a viceroy. This type of mimicry is called Batesian mimicry, where a harmless species mimics a species that tastes bad or is harmful.

Recently, however, scientists found out that the mimicry displayed with these species is actually Mullerian mimicry, where two species that predators don’t like mimic each other. This helps both species, as a predator that eats either one of these species will probably not eat either of them again!

butterflies

Size

Adult viceroy butterflies range from 2 1/2 to 3 3/8 inches (6.3-8.6 cm) in wingspan. These butterflies are extremely light, and one source gives their weight to be just 0.65 grams! This would mean that one butterfly weighs about as much as one-sixth of a piece of letter size, normal weight paper! Females are usually larger than the males.

Diet

Three generations of viceroy butterflies pass in one summer, much like with the monarch butterfly. Surprisingly, the first generation has a different diet than the other two. Since the first generation lives in a colder time period, it does not have as many flowers to get nectar from. Instead, it adopts a much less appetizing feeding strategy. It feeds mainly on juices from carrion, fungi, and animal dung.

The second and third generations live in a time when flowers are much more abundant. They can therefore live off nectar from the many different species of flower. If I were a viceroy butterfly, I think I would want to be in the second or third generation.

Viceroy caterpillars have yet a different set of foods from either of the generations of adults. They eat the leaves of many different plants. Most of the time, they feed on leaves of trees, such as willows and poplars.

Another similarity between these butterflies and monarchs is that it is the diet of the young that makes them unappetizing to predators. The caterpillars eat leaves from the cottonwood willow tree, which makes the butterfly taste nasty to predators throughout its entire life.

Habitat and range

Viceroys occur so far north that they actually inhabit the northern half of Canada! Their range stretches south throughout the eastern and midwestern United States and continues down to central Mexico.

Viceroys enjoy moist areas the most, probably because this gives them the most food. These habitats can take the form of meadows, swamps, farm fields, roadsides, and near lakes. Not all of these habitats are characteristically wet, so any that aren’t are only suitable habitats when they are near sources of water.

Status and threats

The viceroy butterfly has not been given a special status by any major conservation group. There are several areas in their range that these butterflies are becoming rare, but since they have a large enough range, they are not thought to be threatened.

Because they mimic monarchs and are unpalatable to predators themselves, viceroys do not have many natural predators. As with most butterflies, birds are their main threat. Like the monarch, I would assume there are some predators, such as wasps and spiders, that are immune to the chemicals that deter other predators. This is just a guess, though.

Humans do pose a threat to these beautiful creatures, mostly in the form of habitat destruction and disturbance. The main way this happens is by trees and shrubs that are necessary for viceroy breeding being cleared away to make room for development.

Reproduction and young

Not much is known about the mating habits of these creatures. The females lay eggs individually, a single egg on the tip of one leaf. They purposefully do not lay eggs on leaves that have signs of being eaten by other insects. Usually, they will lay two or three eggs on one plant before moving on to the next plant, but I could not find how many eggs they lay total.

When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars are brown, white, or green in color, and they are lumpy. Their color and texture make them resemble bird droppings, therefore protecting them from many possible predators.

After the caterpillars have eaten enough leaves, they attach to a twig and form a chrysalis. This is a semi-hard brown or gray structure that protects the caterpillar while it turns into a butterfly.

There are three generations of viceroys born each summer, and the last generation, instead of migrating south like monarchs do, rolls itself inside a leaf to form a protection for the winter. This thin covering provide enough protection for at least some of this generation to make it to the next year and make a new generation of viceroy butterflies.

Don’t forget to scroll down and comment your guess about what the next animal is!

frog

Sources:

Photo credits:

  • Viceroy butterfly – Benny Mazur
  • Monarch and Viceroy – D. Gordon E. Robertson and Kenneth Dwain Harrelson
  • Mystery animal – Public Domain
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