Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly – Species Profile & Facts

Here’s an excellent, attention-grabbing phrase to start the article on a high note: The Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is the first North American butterfly being subject to an official drawing. This took place in 1587 during Sir Walter Raleigh’s Virginia expedition. It was John White who first drew the butterfly and named it ‘Mamankanois.’ Which means ‘butterfly’ in Native American.

After that, it turned out that the Tiger Swallowtail was just one of many species of butterflies available in the area, including many other Swallowtails.

Today we will discuss the Tiger Swallowtail to see what makes it unique and different than other species.

How to Recognize a Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly?

The Tiger Swallowtail retains much of the trademark Swallowtail appearance in terms of overall coloring and pattern. The male and female are different in size, color display, and wing shape and positioning.

Male Tiger Swallowtail is generally yellow, with slight variations between different specimens, and displays the characteristic black tiger stripes on the wings. Both the forewings and the hindwings showcase a black and thick band on the margins, tainting almost half of the butterfly’s hindwings.

The butterfly’s hindwings also present 2 elongated lobes forming a fish-tail-like structure.

The female is different in the sense that it is dimorphic. She comes in 2 color variations, the yellow and the black versions. The yellow morph is pretty much similar to the male in overall appearance, except for the hindwing. The female’s hindwings display a blue band instead of black, along with yellow and orange spots. The spots are more significant than the males’.

The black morph showcases a very different appearance as its forewings are ashy-black, and hindwings display a dirty blue. This morph also has a black body, compared to the other morph’s black and yellow coloring.

What Does a Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly Caterpillar Looks Like?

The Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar changes its size and coloring as it grows. It’s tiny and brown at first, after which it becomes green with a bulgy head following the 5th instar. There’s no way you can’t recognize the caterpillar immediately in the wild, thanks to one of its most recognizable features – the decoy eyes.

The Tiger Swallowtail has a disproportionate head compared to its body, showcasing 2 large and almost theatrical eyes on the top. They actually look like they’ve been drawn by a 4-year-old. These eyes, combined with the caterpillar’s bulgy head, create the appearance of a snake and make the larva appear larger and more threatening.

The eyes are perfectly visible from a dorsal perspective, aiming at predator birds that could take the caterpillar for food. The caterpillar’s wide eyes will discourage many birds from attacking, consistently improving the larvae’s survival rates.

How Big Does Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly Get?

The Tiger Swallowtail male will only reach 4 inches on average. The females will grow bigger, up to 5.5 inches.

Where do Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly Live?

The Tiger Swallowtail is the most common throughout Northern America, especially in the Eastern regions. You can find it in South Vermont, Florida, Easter Texas, the Great Plains, Ontario, and other states. This species prefers wet habitats like swamps, rivers, wooded streams, and even fields, roadsides, and gardens.

Some specimens will often wander into urban parks and yards in search for food, as well as due to its now limited natural habitat.

What do Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly Eats?

The Tiger Swallowtail’s diet is as colorful as the butterfly itself. The adult butterfly will extract nutrients from a variety of sources, not all as elegant and poetic as flower nectar. Tiger Swallowtails consume flower nectar from dogbane, sunflower, and bean plants (Leguminosae).

They also suck on mud puddles to extract sodium ions and essential amino acids to help in the reproductive process. As a plus, adult butterflies are also notorious from drinking animal urine, excrements, and even rotten animal carcasses.

This makes the Tiger Swallowtail a type of scavenging insect that also comes with pollinating properties, albeit rather modest.

The Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar has an equally diverse diet, as they consume the leaves of plants like:

  • Cottonwood
  • Willow
  • Birch
  • Ash
  • Tulip
  • Milkweed
  • Japanese honeysuckle
  • Ironweed
  • Wild cherry
  • Phlox, etc.

An interesting fact that I should mention here is that the Tiger Swallowtail ranks as the most polyphagous Lepidoptera out of all 600 species of Swallowtails worldwide. Polyphagia describes some species’ unusual appetite, causing them to eat seemingly without stopping.

In humans, this behavior indicates the presence of an underlying disorder; it is, however, perfectly natural behavior in butterflies and other animal species required to pack on a lot of nutrients fast.

The Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar has only one goal – ingesting as much food as possible as quickly as possible. This will fuel its development, minimizing the time required to pupate and begin the metamorphosis process.

What Plants Attract Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly?

The Tiger Swallowtail seeks 2 types of plants: host plants for the larvae and nectar plants as adult food. The first type includes plants like ash, birch, cottonwood, magnolia, willow, and others. The second type contains milkweed, thistle, phlox, honeysuckle, etc.

These flower preferences will often cause the Tiger Swallowtail to wander around urban areas rich in plant-filled gardens. When it comes to laying eggs, the Tiger Swallowtail will more often seek uninhabited areas farther from urban regions.

How do Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies Reproduce?

Although Tiger Swallowtail males tend to form gatherings near puddles and swamps when feeding, they are rather solitary creatures. Males will fly above the tree rooftops, scanning the area below them in search of females. The courtship occurs in mid-air, with the male forcing the female to land and participate in mating.

Soon after, the female will find an ideal spot to lay its fertilized eggs, one at a time. The butterfly’s life cycle will then undergo the common 4 phases of development:

  • Egg – This species’ eggs are perfectly round, light green, and opaque. The female will lay them on several neighboring plants in clutches.
  • Larva – The larva is small and brown at first but will change its appearance along the 5 instar phases. The Tiger Swallowtail larva will consume a lot of food during its short life, trying to pack as many nutrients as possible. The caterpillar will go through 5 molting phases over the course of several days, each time growing larger and changing its coloring and pattern along the way. It turns green towards the 4th instar and grows even bigger decoy eyes, which are already visible the moment the caterpillar hatches.
  • Pupa – The larva will turn into a pupa following the 5th instar, which you can find hanging from branches or stuck on tree bark. The caterpillar will always choose a strategic place to pupate since its pupa is green with brown patterns or completely brown with wood-like coloration. This coloring renders the chrysalis nearly invisible when attached to tree bark.
  • Adult – The adult butterfly emerges from the chrysalis 10 to 20 days later, except in overwintering species, where the pupa remains dormant several months throughout the cold season. As soon as the butterfly is apt to fly, it will take off in search of food and viable mates. The adult Tiger Swallowtail will become sexually mature within a couple of days.

Where do Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies Lay Their Eggs?

The Tiger Swallowtail females lay their eggs on a variety of host plants like birch, cottonwood, willow, or phlox, among many others. These plants will provide the Tiger Swallowtail larvae with plenty of food upon hatching, lowering the time the caterpillar needs to pupate.

This strategy is key for minimizing the impact of natural predation and preparing the pupa for the cold season in overwintering species. This behavior also explains the larvae’s polyphagia, leading to a feeding frenzy throughout its 5-stage life.

Are Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies Rare?

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are rather common throughout the Easter area of North America and neighboring regions. Its overwintering behavior, somewhat stable environment, and adaptability to human presence allowed this species to remain strong over the years.

Tiger Swallowtails are actually some of the most common butterflies in North America that you are likely to encounter in the warm season.

Is the Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly Endangered?

The Easter Tiger Swallowtail isn’t endangered, but other Swallowtail species are. We mention here the Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail, whose main living habitat resides in the Appalachian mountains from Newfoundland and Labrador to Georgia.

This species’ habitat covers most of North America’s easter edge, almost overlapping with the Easter Tiger Swallowtail’s territory. Unlike the latter, however, the Appalachian Swallowtail prefers the colder mountainous climate to the warmer regions that the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail would stick to.

Research has shown that the Appalachian Swallowtail shares genes with the Eastern Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and Canadian Swallowtail (Papilio canadensis).

This eventually led to the scientific conclusion that the 2 parent species gave birth to the Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail some 100,000 years ago, which is recent when discussing the birth of a species. Especially when considering that the Easter and the Canadian Tiger Swallowtails were born, as species, more than 600,000 years ago.

The Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail separated from its ‘parents’ living areas and migrated towards colder regions, where it eventually remained to this day. This species can still mate successfully with its parental species, but that doesn’t seem to happen too often. After all, the 3 live in wildly different habitats and will rarely come into contact.

Today, the Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail is endangered, as its species is only limited to one area. Efforts are being made to preserve its habitat and minimize human interaction as much as possible.

How Long do Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies Live?

The Tiger Swallowtail has an average lifespan of 10 to 14 days, which is typical for most Lepidoptera. This also stands true in overwintering species, where only the pupa has a longer lifespan than seasonal species.

What is the Meaning of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly?

The butterfly’s name stems from its tiger-like color pattern present on its wings and body. The butterfly’s body is yellow with longitudinal black stripes, reminding of the image of a tiger. A tiny, winged, fluffy tiger with large, black eyes and long antennae.

That being said, the Tiger Swallowtail does embody various things in various cultures. This species stands for elegance, endurance, hope, and rebirth, especially in Christian cultures.

The swallowtail part is also linked to the swallowtail birds, linking the 2 species via their specific tail shape. Both the bird and the butterfly display that trademark forked tail that unites them in name.

Is the Easter Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly Poisonous?

No, but that doesn’t mean that the butterfly is defenseless. The Tiger Swallowtail deploys several defensive mechanisms to make up for its lack of toxins:

  • Larval disguise – The Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar showcases snake-like eyes on its nape, designed to fool predatory birds. These eyes create the impression that the caterpillar belongs to a different species, causing predators to avoid it.
  • Larval chemical protection – The Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars possess an organ called osmeterium. This is basically an orange and forked tongue-like organ, similar to a snake tongue. This organ produces terpenes, foul-smelling substances that will deter even the hungriest and most determined predator. This defense mechanism isn’t uncommon in the animal kingdom, as many other species use it to great effect, skunks being one of them.
  • Adult mimicry – The black morph of the Tiger Swallowtail female resembles a pipevine Swallowtail, which is a poisonous species. Pipevine Swallowtails contain aristolochic acids, which they extract from Aristolochia, and these are potentially deadly to a variety of insects. This mimicking behavior ranks the Easter Tiger Swallowtail as a Batesian mimic.


The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is only one of the nearly 600 species of Swallowtail butterflies spread across the Globe. They share many similarities with other species and many differences that place them in a different category in some aspects.

This species is among the most adaptable and the oldest recorded in North America, and it’s here to stay.

Butterflies   Updated: January 31, 2022
avatar Welcome to Insectic, a blog to learn about insects and bugs. I'm Richard, and I've created this website to share my experience, knowledge, and passion with others.

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