Butterflies in Disguise

I may have mentioned my addiction to collecting things. (See, Why My Living Room Looks Like a Cabinet of Curiosities.)  One of the coolest things about my camera, besides providing me with hours of fun, is that it enables me to collect things that are alive (without, you know, making them not alive). So I’ve amassed a fairly decent butterfly collection without ever having to use a killing jar.

So at this point, you can just skip down to the photos, or if you happen to have any interest in butterfly evolution, you can read on:

I chose these particular photos to show off because they demonstrate one of my favorite tricks of nature: mimicry. Take the three types of black swallowtail in the pictures:

Pipevine Swallowtail

The Pipevine Swallowtail is poisonous to birds because it feeds on the toxic pipevine as a caterpillar.


Black Swallowtails

Several Tigers and a Spicebush Swallowtail

The Spicebush and the Eastern Black Swallowtails have evolved to look like the Pipevine to take advantage of its advantage. It’s called Batesian mimicry. The mimics are like sheep in wolf’s clothing and gain the advantage of looking like the wolf.

I also included another pair that show Mullerian mimicry: the Monarch and the Viceroy. In this case, both butterflies are the wolf.


The caterpillar of the monarch butterfly feeds on milkweed which is toxic and unpalatable to birds. It makes them sick but doesn’t kill them. The birds remember and don’t try to eat the next monarch they see.



The Viceroy looks very similar to the Monarch and for years, it was thought that it was another example of Batesian mimcry. But studies have suggested that the Viceroy is also unpalatable to birds. Both butterflies have similar defense mechanisms so they both gain an advantage from the mimicry. (The more butterflies of similar pattern that all taste bad or induce sickness there are, the more quickly birds learn not to eat them.) Cool, Huh?

So I have a bonus question if anyone is interested. There are at least two more butterflies in the eastern United States that mimic the Pipevine Swallowtail. Anybody know what they are?


Leave a comment


  1. Beautiful photos – thanks for sharing!

  2. Gosh, T, I have no idea, but truly these photos are amazing. How do you mange to see so many butterflies? Sara has gotten enough planted in our back garden to begin attracting them, but it looks like you have a surplus. Stunning images.

    • Hi Kathy! My mom has a beautiful garden planted with all kinds of things that attract butterlies and humminbirds. Every time I visit, I get great photos, so Sara has the right idea. Unfortunately, I’m not much of a garderner (yet. I’m trying to learn how not to kill plants.) So I have to go hunt for the butterflies. I go places I know they gather to puddle or where lots of wildflowers bloom. And then I spend inordinate amounts of time chasing them trying to get good shots. It’s my idea of a really fun way to spend a morning. Glad you liked them!

  3. As Kathy says, no clue! But butterflies are awesome and this post gladdens my heart!

  4. Sherrie stringer

     /  March 20, 2012

    Nice pics and interesting facts Tori Jean.


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