Viceroy Butterfly – Species Profile & Facts

The Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis Archippus) is a fantastic butterfly species that stands proof of the nature’s amazing possibilities. If I were, to sum up this species in one phrase, that would be – the butterfly that hides in plain sight.

The Viceroy is famous for 2 things:

  1. It currently ranks as Kentucky’s official butterfly since 1990 (Yes, Kentucky has an official butterfly)
  2. It mimics the Monarch, the most famous butterfly species on Earth

Today, we will dissect the Viceroy (heh) to see what makes it special and learn more about this beautiful and fascinating species. So, let’s start with the beginning.

How to Recognize a Viceroy Butterfly?

Think of how a Monarch butterfly looks. There, that’s it. The Viceroy butterfly is almost identical to the Monarch, with only slight variations in appearance and size. The Viceroy is smaller than the Monarch, only measuring around 2 to 3.2 inches in wingspan, compared to the Monarch’s 3 to 4-inch wingspan.

Its coloring is also not quite identical, although very close. You will see the same orange wings with the black, vein-like bands traversing them vertically. The main difference resides in the Viceroy displaying a horizontal line cutting through the pattern of its hindwings. This immediately exposes the butterfly as a Monarch wanna-be.

The general consensus has been that the Viceroy was a Batesian mimic, after which it was discovered that the categorization was wrong. We now consider the butterfly to be a Mullerian mimic. Here are the differences:

  • Batesian mimicry – The behavior draws its name from Henry Walter Bates, the English naturalist who first discovered it in Brazilian butterfly species. In short, harmful butterfly species will mimic the appearance of toxic, poisonous ones to create confusion among predators. An interesting aspect about this behavior is that mimics are always smaller in population compared to the real deal. If mimics would live in very large populations, predators will eventually interact with them and eventually conclude that they are harmless, which would defeat the purpose. This is why Monarchs live and migrate in numbers of millions at a time, whereas Viceroys are solid individuals, reaching nowhere near those numbers.
  • Mullerian mimicry – Mullerian mimicry is an even more interesting category. This time, the mimics will take on several of the host’s defensive mechanisms, not just the looks. In the case of Viceroys, who rank as Mullerian mimics, they also take the Monarch’s foul taste, making them less appealing to predators. Other mimics emulate a variety of other characteristics beyond the strictly visual ones. Some snake species emulate the sounds emitted by poisonous snakes, while other creatures grow spines, toxins, or poisons, albeit less intense than the original.

The Viceroy’s exceptional mimicking capabilities increase its survival rate dramatically.

What Does a Viceroy Butterfly Caterpillar Looks Like?

Viceroy’s larvae also display mimicking behavior, but different than the adult butterfly. While the adult Viceroy mimics adult Monarchs, the butterfly’s caterpillar mimics bird droppings. Yea, that’s evolution for you.

However funny or awkward the idea may be, this disguise is quite clever and can improve the caterpillar’s survival changes dramatically in the wild. The caterpillar displays a lumpy body with 2 distinct bumps on its back, near the head, and other, smaller ones, on the abdomen.

The coloring is also confusing, generally a mix of olive green, earthy-brown for the lumps, and a white saddle in the middle of the back. The caterpillar has short and bulky legs and thick antennae, covered by black hair and spike-like structures. Everything about the caterpillar screams bird poop, which is why most predators avoid it – they simply don’t see it as food.

How Big Does a Viceroy Butterfly Get?

The Viceroy butterfly can only reach around 3 inches in wingspan length, but it may vary in size based on available food and environmental parameters. Higher temperatures will help the butterfly grow larger and faster than lower ones.

Its smaller size is what gives this species away as a mimic since the Monarch is visibly larger than the Viceroy. However, it doesn’t matter that much since predator birds don’t differentiate between good and bad prey based on size but visual cues like color and movement. And the Viceroy has all the coloring it needs to stay off of most birds’ meal list.

Where do Viceroy Butterflies Live?

The Viceroy is a North American butterfly, sharing most of its living area with that of Monarchs’ which will add up to the confusion. It prefers rather wet areas like marshes, swamps, meadows rich in willow trees, among other species.

What do Viceroy Butterflies Eat?

Just as with any other butterfly, the Viceroy’s diet divides into 2 distinct categories, based on its developmental stage:

  • Larva – The Viceroy caterpillar prefers to feed on willow, poplars, and cottonwood, among other plants. They do so to extract valuable nutrients to propel their growth and obtain salicylic acid, turning them bitter and toxic. Birds eating these caterpillars may experience upset stomachs beyond the mere bitter taste. This evolutionary feature may not protect all Viceroy caterpillars as individuals, but it will protect the species as a whole, and that’s the underlying purpose.
  • Adult – The adult Viceroy will occasionally consume tree sap and even more occasionally drink nectar. However, their most preferred food comes in the form of animal dung. The adult butterfly uses its long and flexible proboscis to dig into animal dung and suck the nutritious fluids while the waste is still fresh. The adult butterfly may also suck on fluids composting on animal carcasses and wet fungi popping in their feeding area.

To make things short and to the point, the caterpillar looks like poop and tastes like poop, while the adult butterfly eats poop.

What Plants Attract Viceroy Butterfly?

Viceroy butterflies prefer willow, poplar, and cottonwood more than any other species. They both feed on these plants and use them as hosts for their eggs during the reproductive season. If you want to attract Viceroys to your garden, any of these 3 plants should do the job.

You may also consider other options like cherry, apple, or plums, although they are not quite as effective.

How do Viceroy Butterflies Reproduce?

The Viceroy’s life cycle is rather common to most species of butterflies. The males and females have around 2-3 weeks available to find each other and mate. The process is easy and short, with the male inseminating the female after a short aerial pursue.

The female will immediately start seeking suitable plants to plant the eggs, lay them, then fly away and die shortly after. The Viceroy will then undergo the classical 4 stages of development:

  • Egg – The eggs stage will last around 4 to 9 days, depending on the environmental conditions. Temperature is a deciding factor in this sense. The eggs appear round and green with cell-like structures covering their surface, similar to a honeycomb. The female Viceroy will place one egg on the tip of each leaf it deems fitting.
  • Larva – The caterpillar will hatch and begin the feeding process immediately. It will typically feed for about 3 to 4 weeks before turning into a pupa. The 5-stage molting is also present with the Viceroy, allowing the caterpillar to grow and change its appearance with each stage.
  • Pupa – The caterpillar will begin to pupate soon into the 5th molt, retaining a similar bird-poo-like appearance. Just like the caterpillar, the pupa will display a mix of colors like white, brown, and black, sometimes with subtle shades of red. The pupa’s shape is also irregular, compared to other species’ more uniform look. This contributes to the larvae’s bird dropping appearance, making it less likely for predators to consider it food.
  • Adult – The adult butterfly tends to live around 3 to 4 weeks, during which mating is its first priority. Until it finds a compatible mating partner, the butterfly will spend its time looking and feeding on various food sources along the way.

An interesting aspect is that the Viceroy butterfly has around 2 to 3 generations of offspring during one mating season. Some Viceroy species will also hibernate in their pupa phase. These phases are called overwintering pupae, which can last for several months until the weather becomes welcoming enough to resume the metamorphosis process.

Where do Viceroy Butterflies Lay Their Eggs?

The female Viceroy prefers to lay the eggs on willows and cottonwood, along with any other plant in the Salicaceae family. This family is divided into 3 other subfamilies, each with their own tribes. Other potential host plants the female Viceroy may prefer include Aphaerema, Banara, Idesia Euceraea, Osmelia, etc.

These are, however, rarer than the willow, cottonwood, and poplars, which are the Viceroy’s favorites. The Viceroy larvae will feed on the host plants soon after spawning, allowing them to grow fast and advance their Mullerian-based mimicry as they feed.

Are Viceroy Butterflies Rare?

Not at all. Although not as widespread as the Monarch, Viceroy butterflies are still relatively common in North America and even in the South, towards Mexico. They are adaptable to a variety of environmental fluctuations, allowing some species to undergo hibernation during the cold season.

Unlike the Monarch, these butterflies don’t migrate, which forced them to stand their ground and adapt. This resilient built allows the Viceroy to thrive even in adverse environmental conditions.

Is the Viceroy Butterfly Endangered?

The Viceroy is neither extinct nor endangered. This is thanks to several unique features, providing the butterfly with increased survivability:

  • Mimics the Monarch’s appearance – While the Viceroy doesn’t mimic the Monarch perfectly, it does take most of its most noticeable features. The only differences include the Viceroy’s smaller size, the extra horizontal black band traversing the hindwings, and the lack of black spots typical to male Monarchs. However, no predator birds will notice these variations.
  • Mimics the Monarch’s lack of palatability – There’s no way of telling how bad the Viceroy tastes compared to the Monarch, but evidence suggest that they are pretty similar. Scientists have found out that, after stripping Monarchs and Viceroys of their wings, they displayed similar appeal to their natural predator birds in lab conditions. Which is none. So, we could conclude that they both taste the same – bitter and uneatable.
  • Caterpillar camouflage – While the adult butterfly can rely on its flight as an additional defensive mechanism, the caterpillar lacks that tool. The Viceroy caterpillar took on a clever disguise to make up for it, posing as bird dropping. As I’ve already explained, the similarity is uncanny, mixing the irregular body shape with color blends that remind of bird poop. The pupa will retain the same pattern in both shape and color.
  • Adaptability – Viceroys are adaptable butterflies, capable of withstanding pretty much any environmental conditions. The species that have adapted to the cold season will hibernate, while the others will die off before the cold season arrives.

These factors come together to keep the Viceroy butterfly well above the floating line.

How Long do Viceroy Butterflies Live?

The adult Viceroys live between 1 to 3 weeks, on average. Some species can live more than that, depending on how soon they can find a compatible mate. The same remains true for overwintering species since only the pupa will survive the cold season. The metamorphosis process will resume in the spring when the resulting adult will display a similar lifespan.

What is the Meaning of Viceroy Butterfly?

The name of Viceroy is a clever political derivative, closely related to the Monarch’s name. Monarch stands for a royal figure, either an emperor, a king, or a queen. Politically speaking, the Viceroy is a governor of a given province who works as the representative of a royal figure, either a queen or a king.

This is fitting, given that the Viceroy butterflies shares some of the Monarch’s territory and most of its characteristics. It makes you appreciate the Viceroy that much more.

Is the Viceroy Butterfly Poisonous?

Yes, they are. This discovery has only come about recently, as I’ve already explained previously in the Batesian-Mullerian mimicry debate. The discovery that the Viceroy butterfly also contains the toxins previously only thought to exist in Monarchs changed the butterfly’s categorization from Batesian to Mullerian.

The butterfly isn’t that poisonous, meaning that predators won’t die if they eat it. But they won’t like it either. The salicylic acids make the butterfly foul-tasting, encouraging potential predators to look for other, more delicious food sources.

Conclusion

The Viceroy butterfly is harmless, as is the Monarch. It is one of nature’s greatest Mullerian mimics, owing its increased survival rate to the most famous butterfly in the world.

Name a better duo than this. I’ll wait.

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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