Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly: Identification, Life Cycle, and Behavior

In this article, you’ll get a comprehensive understanding of the Small Tortoiseshell – a splendid, vibrant species renowned for its endurance.

You’ll learn how to identify these creatures, explore their life cycle, and uncover intriguing aspects of their behavior.

From mating rituals to diet, you’re about to step into a captivating world of a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly.

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly

What is the Classification of Small Tortoiseshell?

When discussing the small tortoiseshell, it’s essential to note its scientific classification. This butterfly belongs to Nymphalidae, a diverse family of about 6,000 species.

Listed under the genus Aglais, the small tortoiseshell goes by the scientific name of Aglais urticae.

As a member of the Lepidoptera order, it’s grouped with other butterflies and moths. The small tortoiseshell sits within the Insecta class, which means it’s an insect.

This line of classification sees it reside under the Arthropoda phylum, a massive group that includes animals with exoskeletons and paired appendages.

This progression leads us up to the kingdom level, where the small tortoiseshell resides in the Animalia kingdom, alongside millions of diverse species.

To encapsulate this in a glance:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Class: Insecta
  • Order: Lepidoptera
  • Family: Nymphalidae
  • Genus: Aglais
  • Species: A. urticae

By understanding this classification, you gain valuable insight into the small tortoiseshell. It sets the groundwork for further understanding its habits, life cycle, and behavior.

What is the Distribution of Small Tortoiseshell?

The Small Tortoiseshell, aptly named Aglais Urticae, knows no boundaries. These tiny, fascinating creatures are native to areas of North Africa, Europe, and Asia, covering a wide geographical expanse.

  • Predominantly found in the United Kingdom, they’re no strangers to the colder climates of Scandinavia. The resilient butterfly species can venture northwards into the Arctic Circle, demonstrating an astonishing adaptability to colder temperatures.
  • Heading eastwards, Asia provides varied habitats for them. You can spot them fluttering around in the temperate regions of Siberia. Even the high-altitude terrains of the Himalayas host these captivating creatures.
  • Southwards, they grace the landscapes of North Africa. While it is more rare here, certain areas along the Mediterranean coastline offer a perfect place for them to thrive.

However, over the years, there has been a shift in this broad distribution pattern. Unfortunately, the Small Tortoiseshell population in the UK has decreased significantly.

On the other hand, in Eastern Europe, Asia, and some regions of North Africa, the population remains relatively stable.

Climate, availability of food, and specific breeding sites dictate their distribution. So wherever you’re located, keep an eye out for these little butterflies.

They might just flutter into your view, adding a dash of color to your day.

What are the Main Characteristics of the Small Tortoiseshell?

The Small Tortoiseshell, or Aglais urticae, is a well-known butterfly characterized by its vibrant colors and steady flight. Its upper wings boast a striking pattern of orange and black, elegantly laced with distinctive blue markings along the edges.

According to its size, the butterfly reaches a wingspan between 1.8 to 2.2 inches (45-56mm), making it noticeably smaller than many other species.

From a physical standpoint, this butterfly rests with its wings tightly closed, which reveals the cryptically coloured undersides.

This underside has a mottled pattern, primarily made up of various shades of brown, helping it blend into the environment when it feels threatened.

The Small Tortoiseshell flies in a fast, straight manner, and often settles on low vegetation. You may find that it frequently basks in the sunlight, wings wide open on bare grounds or stones.

This species is known as one of the first butterflies to emerge from hibernation, sometimes being spotted as early as March.

Its ability to hibernate as an adult is an important characteristic, allowing it to survive colder climates and increase its lifespan. This is in stark contrast to most butterflies who overwinter in a pupal or larval stage.

Owning to their adaptability, these butterflies can flourish in various habitats, such as gardens, hedgerows, woodland clearings, and even meadows.

In terms of behavior, Small Tortoiseshells are known for their territorial attitudes, and males can often be seen aggressively defending their territory against intruders.

This behavior, alongside their vibrant aesthetics and durability, truly marks the Small Tortoiseshell as a distinctive member of the butterfly world.

How to Identify Male and Female Small Tortoiseshell?

Understanding how to identify the sex of a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly isn’t as complex as it may sound. Looking closely at the two, you’ll notice subtle differences.

The overall size is your first clue. Males are slightly smaller, typically measuring around 2 inches (5 cm) in wingspan, while females stretch a little further to about 2.2 inches (5.5 cm).

Now, focus on their color patterns. Males have a bold, vibrant orange and black pattern with fewer spots than females.

Their markings, particularly the blue spots around the edge of the wings, are also less pronounced than on females.

The female Small Tortoiseshell, conversely, has a slightly duller coloration. She has more spots than the male and the patterns on her wings are generally more intricate.

Another distinction lies in their behavior. Males are territorial and often seen basking in the sun. This is contrast to females, who are more likely to be found near nettle patches, their caterpillar’s primary food source.

In summary, the size, the wing pattern, and behavior are good starting points to differentiate between a male and female Small Tortoiseshell.

Through close observation, you’ll soon become adept at distinguishing between the sexes of these fascinating butterflies.

What is the Mating Ritual of Small Tortoiseshell?

Small Tortoiseshell butterflies have quite a unique mating process. Rather than individual, one-on-one encounters, these butterflies engage in what’s known as mating swarms.

This usually involves a single female being pursued by a group of males.

Once a male has successfully asserted himself over his rivals, he will guard the chosen female. The mating itself will then finally occur and last for the better part of an hour.

What makes this mating process so distinctive is the in-vivo fertilization. As with most butterflies, the female stores the sperm internally, using it to fertilize her eggs as she lays them.

It’s a carefully choreographed ritual, designed to maximize the potential for reproduction.

Also, the mating season typically occurs during spring and summer, when the population of these butterflies are highest. The female then goes on to lay her eggs, starting the next stage of their life cycle.

As you may notice, the sequence of this ritual significantly impacts the life cycle of the Small Tortoiseshell.

The behaviors observed during this time are a testament to the perseverance and competitiveness of this species.

What Does the Caterpillar of Small Tortoiseshell Look Like?

Let’s talk about the caterpillar, specifically the stage before it becomes a stunning Small Tortoiseshell. Distinctive and easy to identify, the caterpillar is a sight to behold.

Ornamented with a jet-black body coupled with spikes, it’s a marvel of nature. Dotting its exoskeleton, the yellow and white speckles are a standout against the darkness.

Appearances aside, the caterpillar has an interesting behavior too. When it’s not eating, it’s usually found in conspicuous “webbed” nests.

These nets are found on the leaves of nettles, the preferred food of this species. This spectacular caterpillar can grow to approximately 1 inch (2.5 cm) in its final instar stage.

This characteristic goes in line with the rest of the species of the family Nymphalidae. They usually have stout bodies, almost cylindrical, with short legs.

The caterpillar executes its mimicry behaviors from this stage, an exciting fact not so common in its family of butterflies. Now, aren’t you fascinated by this prickly juvenile stage of Small Tortoiseshell?

What is the Life Cycle of Small Tortoiseshell?

The Small Tortoiseshell’s life cycle is an intricate yet captivating biological process that displays the quintessence of metamorphosis.

It all begins when the females lay clusters of greenish-blue oval-shaped eggs on the undersides of nettles, the primary host plant.

  1. Egg Stage: The cycle starts when, after mating, female tortoiseshells lay their eggs. They usually select the underside of nettle leaves to lay clusters of 60-100 eggs. The eggs hatch within 14 days.
  2. Larval Stage: Once the eggs hatch, the caterpillars begin their feeding stage on nettles. Marked by five instar stages, the larvae period extends to about 30 days. The caterpillar’s body, black in color with yellow lines and covered in spiky hairs, eventually enlarges, reaching up to 1 inch (2.5 cm) before pupation.
  3. Pupal Stage: When the caterpillar is fully grown, it forms a silken pad on a stem or leaf where it anchors itself to metamorphosize into a chrysalis. The transformation into a pupa marks the beginning of an approximately two-week period of significant changes within.
  4. Adult Stage: After the metamorphosis is complete, an adult small tortoiseshell butterfly emerges from the pupa. As adults, they typically display a striking pattern with a vivid orange and black design, instantly distinguishable. This stage can last from a few weeks up to 9 months, with individuals usually experiencing hibernation during the winter.

The Small Tortoiseshell’s life cycle is a beautiful illustration of metamorphosis.

From an egg to a graceful butterfly, each of the four stages offers a glimpse into the extraordinary resilience and adaptability of these creatures.

What Is the Average Life Expectancy of a Small Tortoiseshell?

Perhaps one of the most intriguing details about the Small Tortoiseshell is its lifespan. Expectedly, numerous factors contribute to how long these colorful creatures live.

Small Tortoiseshell butterflies, in the grand scheme of Lepidoptera, have a fairly lengthy lives, typically reaching up to a year.

Their life cycle starts in early spring. Female butterflies lay their eggs on stinging nettles, which later serve as caterpillar food.

Once hatched, these well-fed caterpillars metamorphose into beautiful adults, with the process concluding by summer.

Throughout summer and autumn, the adult Small Tortoiseshell will be active. But as colder weather arrives, they enter a phase of winter dormancy, known as overwintering.

This is when Small Tortoiseshell really demonstrate their tenacity, overcoming harsh conditions to survive until the following spring.

This year-long life cycle — from egg to overwintering adult — encapsulates the average life expectancy of a Small Tortoiseshell.

Remember, these timelines can be affected by environmental conditions or parasites. Responding to such threats, these butterflies may even accelerate their development, completing their life cycle faster than average.

In conclusion, the Small Tortoiseshell’s life expectancy displays an impressive balance — of time, tolerance and survival tactics.

This delicate dance with nature ensures the continued presence of these butterflies, delighting butterfly enthusiasts with their vivacious display of colors for seasons on end.

What Does the Diet of a Small Tortoiseshell Consist Of?

Small Tortoiseshell, or Aglais urticae, has a diverse diet that varies dramatically as it moves through its lifecycle.

The diet of a Small Tortoiseshell primarily depends on its stage in growth: caterpillar or butterfly.

In the caterpillar stage, the Small Tortoiseshell feeds mainly on the leaves of the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). They are not very adventurous eaters and tend to stick with what’s accessible and available.

Once they undergo metamorphosis and reach their butterfly stage, their diet changes. Being a nectar feeding species, adult Small Tortoiseshells will seek flowers and draw sustenance from their nectar.

Blossoms of plants like thistles, dandelions, and especially buddleia (otherwise known as the Butterfly Bush), make frequent appearances in their menu, offering both nutrition and delight to these ephemeral creatures.

In addition, Small Tortoiseshell butterflies also supplement their diet with tree sap and fermenting fruit, indulging their sweet tooth whenever the season permits.

This diverse diet allows them to meet their energy needs and successfully navigate through their short but complex lives.

Which Plants Serve as the Primary Hosts for Small Tortoiseshell?

It’s indeed fascinating to know what aids in the growth and development of the Small Tortoiseshell. These butterflies tend to have a special preference for certain plant species, leveraging them as primary hosts.

Primarily, stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are the most favored by this butterfly species.

Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars feed almost exclusively on nettles which offer them not only nutrition but also a measure of protection from certain types of predators due to the plant’s stinging hairs.

Secondly, the adult butterflies often feed on nectar-rich flowering plants. Species such as thistles, daisies, and buddleia serve as significant nectar sources.

Knowing this information can be incredibly valuable for individuals interested in creating butterfly-friendly gardens or environments.

Ensuring these plant species’ availability can significantly help to sustain Small Tortoiseshell populations.

What are the Unique Mimicry Behaviors in Small Tortoiseshell?

Small Tortoiseshell butterflies exhibit remarkable mimicry behaviors. If you’ve ever wondered why they have a striking pattern of blue, black, and orange on their wings, it’s not purely for aesthetics.

While most species use their vibrant wings to attract potential mates, Small Tortoiseshells utilize them for a much more vital purpose: survival.

The bright colors on their wings are actually warning signs to predators. Predators associate these colors with toxicity, and therefore, they tend to avoid the Small Tortoiseshell.

This is a mimicry strategy known as “aposematic coloration”. It’s a survival trick adopted by various creatures, and our Small Tortoiseshell has learned it effectively too.

But that’s not all. When danger is imminent, the Small Tortoiseshell further deceives its predators by playing dead. Yes, that’s right.

It collapses to the ground, folding its wings to hide the vibrant colors and revealing the undersides which blend in with the ground. In other words, it completely disappears from the predator’s sight.

Consequently, the predator loses interest, considering it a lifeless meal, leaving our little mimicker alive and well.

Thus, through its clever color-coded danger alerts and death feigning, the Small Tortoiseshell outwits even its most persistent pursuers.

Watch these butterflies closely when you can, and you might just catch one giving a remarkable performance of survival.

What Are the Main Threats to Small Tortoiseshell Populations?

The Small Tortoiseshell, a captivating and vivacious butterfly species, faces numerous threats. Habitat loss is one of the primary challenges to their existence.

With the continual expansion of urban areas and industrial land, the natural homes of these creatures are rapidly disappearing.

Pesticide exposure is another hurdle. These detrimental chemicals often used in farming negatively impact the butterflies directly and their larvae indirectly by polluting their primary food sources: stinging nettles.

Invasive species also pose a formidable threat. For instance, the introduction of the Parasitic fly (Sturmia bella), which feeds on the caterpillars of Small Tortoishells, has had a catastrophic impact on their populations.

Lastly, climate change is a significant threat to the Small Tortoiseshell’s survival. Consistent temperature changes affect the hatching of larvae, and extreme weather events can wipe out entire populations in one fell swoop.

The Small Tortoiseshell is facing risks from various angles. It is critical to address these issues to secure the future of this unique species.

Sustainable farming practices, reduction in habitat destruction, and proper measures against invasive species can potentially preserve and restore Small Tortoiseshell populations.


In conclusion, the small tortoiseshell is a fascinating creature with a unique life cycle and intriguing behaviors that are sure to capture anyone’s interest.

Their remarkable mimicry behaviors, combined with their distinctive colourings, make them a particularly notable species in the world of butterflies.

We’d love to hear your own experiences or observations of the small tortoiseshell; feel free to leave a comment below.

Butterflies   Updated: July 8, 2023
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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