Vanessa Atalanta Butterfly – Species Profile & Facts

Vanessa Atalanta is one of the most adaptable butterfly species on Earth. You may know it as the Red Admiral, thanks to its unique coloring and trademark pattern that’s usually universal to all Atalanta species. Only small variations will occur.

But what makes this species special and how does it stand out in the butterfly world? Let’s have a look.

How to Recognize a Vanessa Atalanta Butterfly?

The Atalanta species displays a distinct look, mostly based on black and red. The butterfly’s forewings are black, with red oblique bands traversing the wing from top to bottom. The wing’s front lobes generally display white spots of different sizes and shapes.

Some variations of Vanessa Atalanta may showcase orange instead of red, and the colored wing bands may come at different angles. Similar variations occur among individual butterflies as well, not only among species. In essence, Vanessa Atalanta is easily recognizable, especially due to its almost universal coloring pattern.

What Does a Vanessa Atalanta Butterfly Caterpillar Looks Like?

This species’ caterpillar looks nothing like the adult butterfly, but I guess that’s true for all butterfly species. The Red Admiral caterpillar is around 1 inch in size and will showcase a small, meaty body with thick and short legs. It’s usually brown in color, but it can vary at times. Some caterpillars show green or black nuances, depending mostly on their environment.

An interesting aspect of Atalanta caterpillars is their camouflaging ability. These caterpillars have adapted to blend in their natural environment to minimize the risk of being detected by predators.

The caterpillar’s host plant is the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) which has ‘hairy’ leaves. The hairs are actually thin needles called trichomes that the plant uses to inject histamine to cause contact urticaria. It’s basically an unpleasant burning and itching sensation.

The caterpillar has taken some of the plant’s look, displaying its own body hairs, similar to those of the stinging nettle. Its color also mimics the plant’s coloring, allowing the caterpillar to blend within its environment even better.

How Big Does Vanessa Atalanta Gets?

The butterfly’s wingspan ranges between 1.75 inches to 2.5 inches. Its size largely depends on the differences between the morphs. Morph is another word for phenotype or, simply, form, and it refers to variations within the same species based on environmental conditions, among other factors.

Vanessa Atalanta displays 2 distinct morphs, a summer and a winter one. The winter morph will display a smaller wingspan than the summer one since environmental temperatures heavily influence the butterfly’s size and growth rate.

Where do Vanessa Atalanta Butterflies Live?

Vanessa Atalanta butterflies have adapted to pretty much every environment, except those with extremely cold weather. However, it is more fond of temperate weather, which is why you will find this species more often in regions like North Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and Central America.

We’re talking in continents rather than countries because Vanessa Atalanta’s reproductive proficiency and adaptability have allowed it to thrive in various climates.

The Red Admiral is visible in a multitude of biomes, including savannas, grassland, forests, marshes, mountainous regions, etc. It has also adapted to cold weather to some degree, which is why it isn’t abnormal to meet the species in Canada or Northern Russia.

What do Vanessa Atalanta Butterflies Eat?

This species is nectarivore, like, basically, all butterfly species. It will feed primarily on tree sap, fermented fruits, manure, bird droppings, and, of course, nectar. The adult Vanessa Atalanta prefers aster and milkweed, among other flowers, while the caterpillar prefers plants from the Urtica and Humulus genera.

The butterfly’s food preferences don’t show too much variation, except only between various morphs living in different geographical regions.

What Plants Attract Vanessa Atalanta Butterfly?

This butterfly is attracted mainly to red and purple colors, which explains its infatuation with flowers like milkweed, alfalfa, purple coneflower, and aster.

How do Vanessa Atalanta Butterflies Reproduce?

The reproduction process is pretty straightforward, with Atalanta males waiting on sunny areas for females to fly by. They pursue them, perform the mating dance, and inseminate the female, after which they die. The female will seek a safe area to lay its fertilized eggs soon after mating, prioritizing the stinging nettle plant over any other option.

From there, the butterfly’s life cycle will undergo the 3 typical phases:

  • Larva – The eggs will hatch within several days after spawning, depending on the weather. Higher temperatures will cause the eggs to hatch faster. The caterpillar will begin to feed soon after spawning and will focus exclusively on feeding for the coming 3 to 4 weeks. An interesting aspect about the Atalanta caterpillar is that it builds ‘tents’ by folding one of the leaves of the plant they’ve spawned on. They will stitch the plant’s edges together via a sticky substance used to hold them in place. The larva will use that tent as shelter and only get out to eat. The Atalanta caterpillar will undergo 5 instars (molting phases) as part of its growth cycle.
  • Pupa – After 4 weeks have passed, the caterpillar builds its cocoon to being the metamorphosis process. The duration of the pupal phase can vary dramatically, depending on the environmental conditions. At an ambiental temperature of around 90 F, the pupal phase will only last approximately 6 days. The lower the ambiental temperature, the longer the pupal stage. The longest pupal phase observed went around 80 days.
  • Adult – The adult butterfly will emerge from the pupa and spend some time to regain its powers and inflate and vascularize its wings. It will then fly off to search for food, and a compatible mate and the whole reproductive cycle resets.

Where do Vanessa Atalanta Butterflies Lay their Eggs?

Atalanta butterflies always lay their eggs on their larvae’s preferred food sources. The female butterfly prioritizes the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) for that, but this is not the only option. Other viable plants include the false nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica), Pennsylvania pellitory, and a variety of other plants in the Cannabaceae and Compositae families.

These plants serve as food for the upcoming caterpillars, providing them with immediate access to nutrient-rich sources.

Are Vanessa Atalanta Butterflies Rare?

Not, they are actually quite common pretty much all over the Globe. Vanessa butterflies are very adaptable creatures, capable of inhabiting pretty much any environment, with only minor exceptions.

This means that if the butterfly’s habitat becomes inhospitable for whatever reasons, Vanessa Atalanta can relocate over time since it can withstand a variety of temperatures.

Is the Vanessa Atalanta Butterfly Endangered?

Nom, the butterfly is doing quite well. Some species are scarcer than others, but the family as a whole is widespread throughout the Globe. If you want to meet the Vanessa Atalanta butterfly in its natural habitats, travel to an area with temperate climate during the warm season.

How Long Do Vanessa Atalanta Butterflies Live?

This species’ lifespan depends heavily on the environment. Butterflies living in warmer regions will typically live around 1 to 2 months. Those that have adapted to colder regions hibernate during winter, allowing them to live around 10 months or more.

What is the Meaning of Vanessa Atalanta Butterfly?

There is no meaning behind the name. It works like that with certain Latin names.

Is the Vanessa Atalanta Butterly Poisonous?

No, but it does give away that impression, caterpillars especially. This species’ caterpillars display needle-like hairs on their backs to mimic their host plant, the stinging nettle. The plant is slightly poisonous, producing chemicals that cause itching and a burning sensation.

The caterpillar has taken on the plant’s look to blend in within its environment, but it hasn’t taken its poisonous content.

Adult butterflies are also non-poisonous and non-venomous, despite displaying flashy colors. One theory suggests that Vanessa Atalanta butterflies do that to appear poisonous and improve their survivability, but there’s no way we can know for sure.


Vanessa Atalanta is a simple but beautiful butterfly species, displaying impressive adaptability to a wide range of environments. Their life-cycle is longer for species living in cold regions, and you can find them pretty much everywhere if you look closely enough.

Butterflies   Updated: January 28, 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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