Nymphalidae Butterfly Family
Monarch Butterfly | Blue Morpho Butterfly | Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly
The Nymphalidae family of butterflies are a family of medium to large sized, brightly colored butterflies. There are about 5,000 different species, distributed all over the world.
Although these butterflies are brightly colored, their underwings are a dull color and in some species look remarkably like dead leaves.
This resemblance to dead leaves enables them to disappear into their surroundings giving them an excellent camouflage effect.
In adult butterflies, the first pair of legs are small or reduced, hence the families alternative names of ‘four-footed’ or ‘brush-footed’ butterflies. The caterpillars are hairy or spiky with projections on the head and the chrysalids have shiny spots.
The antennae of these butterflies always has two grooves on the underside and a club variable in shape. In some species of this family, the front pair of legs in the male is reduced in size and functionally impotent. In many of the forms of the subfamilies, the fore legs are kept pressed against the underside of the thorax and are, in the males, often very inconspicuous.
Within the Nymphalidae family, there are five main clades (taxonomic group comprising a single common ancestor and all the descendants of that ancestor):
The libytheine clade
The danaine clade
The satyrine clade
The heliconiine clade
The nymphaline clade
The Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus, subfamily: Danaidae – Milkweed butterfly family), is perhaps the most well-known of all North American butterflies. It is also known as the ‘Milkweed Butterfly’ as it eats the poisonous Milkweed plant in its larval stage or the Wanderer Butterfly which it is known by in Australia.
Like all insects, Monarch butterflies have 6 jointed legs, 3 body parts, a pair of antennae, compound eyes and an exoskeleton. Its wings are colored an easily recognizable orange and black pattern, with a wingspan of 8.5 – 12.5 centimetres (3.34 inches – 4.92inches). Female monarchs have darker veins on their wings and the males have a spot in the centre of each hindwing from which pheromones are released.
The Viceroy Butterfly has a similar size, color and pattern, but can be distinguished by an extra black stripe across the hindwing. The photos below show how similar the Viceroy and the Monarch are. The photo on the left is the Monarch.
Monarch butterflies are especially noted for their lengthy annual migration. They make massive southward migrations starting in August until the first frost. Eastern populations winter in Florida, along the coast of Texas and in Mexico and return to the north in spring. Monarch butterflies follow the same migration patterns every year. During migration, huge numbers of butterflies can be seen gathered together.
Female Monarch butterflies deposit eggs for the next generation during these migrations. The length of these journeys exceeds the normal life span of most Monarch butterflies, which is less than 2 months for butterflies born in early summer. The last generation of the summer enters into a non-reproductive phase known as ‘diapause’ and may live up to 7 months. During ‘diapause’, butterflies fly to one of many overwintering sites. The generation that overwinters generally does not reproduce until it leaves the overwintering site sometime in February and March. Monarch butterflies are one of the few insects capable of making transatlantic crossings.
A few Monarch butterflies turn up in the far southwest of Great Britain in years when the wind conditions are right and have been sighted as far east as Long Bennington. Monarch butterflies can also be found in New Zealand during summer, but are absent the rest of the year. Monarchs can live a life of 20 to 80 weeks in a garden having their host Asclepias plants and sufficient flowers for nectar.
The mating period for the overwinter population occurs in the spring, just prior to migration from the overwintering sites. The courtship is fairly simple. The Monarch butterfly goes through four radically different stages:
The eggs are laid by the females during spring and summer breeding months. The eggs hatch, revealing worm-like larva, the caterpillars. The caterpillars consume their egg cases, then feed on milkweed. During the caterpillar stage, Monarch butterflies store energy in the form of fat and nutrients to carry them through the non-feeding pupa stage.
After awhile, the caterpillars attach themselves head down to a convenient twig, they shed their outer skin and begin the transformation into a pupa (or chrysalis), a process which is completed in a matter of hours.
The chrysalis hangs upside down in the shape of a ‘J’, and then molts, leaving itself encased in an waxy green exoskeleton. At this point, hormonal changes occur, leading to the development of a butterfly. The chrysalis darkens and becomes increasingly transparent a day before it emerges and its orange and black wings can be seen. The mature butterfly emerges after about two pupal weeks and hangs from the split chrysalis for several hours until its wings are dry. Meanwhile fluids are pumped into the crinkled wings until they become full and stiff. Finally, the monarch spreads its wings and then flies in a circle and away, to feed on a variety of flowers, including milkweed flowers, red clover and goldenrod.
Monarch butterflies are foul-tasting and poisonous due to the presence of cardenolide aglycones in their bodies, which the caterpillars ingest as they feed on milkweed. Both forms advertise their unsuitability for eating with bright colors and areas of high contrast on the skin or wings. This phenomenon is known as ‘aposematism’.
Monarch butterflies share this defence with the even more unpleasant-tasting Viceroy butterfly.
The Monarch butterfly is the state insect of Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, and Texas, and the state butterfly of Minnesota, Vermont, and West Virginia. It was nominated in 1989 as the national insect of the United States of America and is the national insect of Canada.
Blue Morpho Butterfly
The Blue Morpho Butterfly (Morpho menelaus) is an iridescent tropical butterfly.
The Blue Morpho Butterfly lives in the rainforests of South and Central America, including Brazil, Costa Rica and Venezuela.
The Blue Morpho Butterfly is a species of neotropical (a eotropical region that extends from the southern tip of South America up to Mexico) butterfly that has brilliant blue wings (the females are are not as brightly colored as the males and have a brown edge with white spots surrounding the iridescent blue area). The undersides (visible when the butterfly is resting) are brown with bronze-colored eyespots. The The Blue Morpho Butterfly has a wingspan of about 6 inches (15 centimetres). Adults drink the juices of rotting fruit using their straw-like proboscis.
The larva eat plants at night. The larva is red-brown in color with bright patches of lime-green or yellow. The larvae are also highly cannibalistic.
You can read more about this butterfly in our Rainforest Section.
Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly
The Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly (Nymphalis urticae, Tribe: Nymphalini) is a well-known colorful butterfly, found in temperate Europe.
This is a species often found in gardens. The caterpillars feed on nettles, as do those of several Nymphalidae butterflies.
The adult Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly is striking, with its dark body and red and yellow wings, which have a row of blue dots around the rear edge. However, the underwings are dull, which helps to camouflage stationary or hibernating individuals. When threatened, resting individuals rapidly open their wings, presenting the dramatic display of colors. This can frighten away predators. As with most butterflies the male is smaller than the female with a wingspan between 45 and 60 milliletres.
The Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly is one of the commonest British butterflies. The butterfly is abundant in most areas of the United Kingdom and Ireland. However, its availability often varies yearly. Its presence may often depend on the status of the common wasp in that particular season, as the wasp is known to feed on the Tortoiseshells pupae.
The adults emerge in the spring and seek out a food source where the males defend a territory. The eggs are laid on stinging nettles. The caterpillars are black with yellow lines along the body and hairy spines which give some protection from predators. They reach about 22 millimetres in length before metamorphosing into a chrysalis, which can often be found hanging under a window sill.
Some adults may emerge prematurely during mild periods in the winter. The majority are seen from March to June and the new generation, from mid-July to late September when they can be seen feeding on Budleja, Thistles and other nectar-rich flowers as they stock up for winter hibernation.
Other species of butterfly from this family:
Archdukes (genus Lexias)
California tortoiseshell (Nymphalis californica)
Comma (Polygonia c-album)
Common buckeye (Junonia coenia)
Common Snout Butterfly (Libytheana carinenta)
Cracker butterflies (genus Hamadryas)
Crimson Patch (Chlosyne janais)
Lorquin’s Admiral (Limenitis lorquini)
Marsh Fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia)
Meadow Brown (Maniolis jurtina)
Mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)
Peacock (Inachis io)
Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis)
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)
Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus)