Swallowtail Butterflies (Family Papilionidae)

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Common midwest swallowtail butterflies:

Black Swallowtail - Papilio polyxenes

Tiger Swallowtail - Papilio glaucus

Spicebush Swallowtail - Papilio troilus

Giant Swallowtail - Papilio cresphontes

Pipevine Swallowtail - Battus philenor

Zebra Swallowtail - Eurytides marcellus



More about Swallowtails



The butterfly family 'Papilionidae' includes over 500 species around the world, 30 species in North America. They are big sized butterflies that tend to glide more while flying rather than rapidly beating their wings.

Their caterpillars, or larvae, all have an osmeterium. Osmetria are fleshy glands behind their heads which they pop out when startled or threatened. They tend to smell bad and have a forked snake tongue like appearance and can scare off some potential predators.

Adults feed on flower nectar while the caterpillars use a variety of host plants, depending upon the species (click the links to specific butterfly species below to see their host plant).

There are 3 subfamilies of Papilionidae: Papilioninae, Parnassiinae and Baroniinae. Baroniinae only has one species in it and it lives in Southern Mexico. Parnassiinae only has 3 species in North America, and they don't live anywhere near me. So I have only included detailed information of butterflies in the subfamily Papilioninae, since those are the ones I have personally had experience with so far.



Subfamily Papilioninae


Most Papilionidae butterflies are in the Papilioninae subfamily. Most of them also live in tropical areas, however 27 species live in North America. The birdwing butterflies, which are native to southeast Asian and northern Australia, are very large and beautiful members of this subfamily. Papilioninae is further broken down into 3 tribes: Papilionini, Troidini and Leptocircini.



Fluted Swallowtails - Tribe Papilionini


There are 21 species of this tribe in North America, around 200 worldwide. Many of the caterpillars mimic bird droppings to confuse predators and some older caterpillars have characteristics that resemble snakes, presumably to also confuse predators.

Some adults are very dark and mimic members of the Troidini tribe, which are poisonous.

There 6 species of this tribe where I live, and below are links to pages with more detail about them, including pictures and how to attract them to your garden.


Black Swallowtail - Papilio polyxenes

Tiger Swallowtail - Papilio glaucus

Spicebush Swallowtail - Papilio troilus

Giant Swallowtail - Papilio cresphontes




Aristolochia Swallowtails - Tribe Troidini


This tribe includes the large birdwing butterflies and has 136 species worldwide. Only two are normally found in North America and a 3rd is a rare stray.

Their caterpillars eat Aristolochia plants (commonly known as pipevine), which is poisonous to vertebrates. These butterflies then, too, are poisonous which gives them some protection from predators. Other butterflies mimic these species to trick would be predators into thinking they are also poisonous.



Pipevine Swallowtail - Battus philenor



Battus polydamas (This species is only a rare stray where I live, so I have not seen one yet and do not have personal experience with it.)



Kite Swallowtails - Tribe Leptocircini


There 144 species in this tribe around the world, but only one in the United States - the Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus). A couple others are rare strays into southern Florida and Texas, but are native to Cuba, Central American and Mexico

Adults of this tribe generally have longer tails on their wings.


Zebra Swallowtail - Eurytides marcellus




Subfamily Parnassiinae

Only three species of Parnassians are found in N. America (in western mountains), the rest are in Eurasia - around 50 species in total.)



Subfamily Baroniinae

There is only one species in this subfamily and it lives in Southern Mexico.





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