Butterfly Guide: Gulf Fritillary Butterfly

Gulf fritillary butterfly, also known as Passion butterfly, lives in the US and Mexico, and is unique for its elongated wings, bright orange color on its upperside, and three white spots encircled with black on each of its forewings.

Gulf Fritillary Butterfly Species Summary

Scientific NameDione vanillae, Agraulis vanillae
Family NameNymphalidae
HabitatOpen and sunny areas
RangeSouthern United States, Mexico, and Hawaii
Host PlantsAll Passionflower varieties of the genus Passiflora
Butterfly DescriptionLong narrow wings, bright orange with noticeable black markings
Caterpillar DescriptionGreen and red body with soft spikes

Butterfly Physical Description

Gulf fritillary
Gulf fritillary

The Gulf fritillary butterfly is a bright orange butterfly from the subfamily Heliconiinae. These are called longwing butterflies and have longer and narrower wings than others.

Adult Gulf fritillary has a wingspan of 2 1/2 to 3 3/4 inches (6.3 to 9.5 cm). Its upperside is brightly orange with black markings. It also has three white spots encircled with black on its forewings. The underside has a brownish-orange base, with both wings elongated and rich with iridescent silver spots.

This is a medium-sized butterfly that exhibits sexual dimorphism. Females are usually larger than males, darker in color, and have more black streaks than males. These butterflies are common, and their conservation status is secure.

Caterpillar Physical Description

Gulf Fritillary Butterfly Caterpillar
Gulf Fritillary Butterfly Caterpillar

Gulf fritillary caterpillars (larvae) are dark orange with tiny black spines coming out from their bodies. The larval stage has 5 instars. Once the eggs hatch, the larva will start consuming the egg casing, and later it will eat other eggs and eventually leaves.

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This kind of feeding will last during the first 3 instars. During the last one, it will switch to eating mostly leaves and feed at the leaf margin. The average duration of the complete larval stage ranges from 11 to 16 days.

When the caterpillar starts going into the chrysalis stage, it will turn gray. Eventually, it will attach itself to the surface and hang upside down. Pupae of Gulf fritillary butterflies have different colors and sizes and aren’t easily distinguishable.

Gulf Fritillary Butterfly Lifespan

Egg Stage4 to 8 days
Caterpillar Stage14 to 21 days
Chrysalis Stage5 to 10 days
Butterfly Stage14 to 28 days

Habitat and range

The Gulf fritillary butterfly prefers open sunny areas. It can be seen around pastures, wood edges, and open fields. It’s also present in butterfly gardens and city parks.

Gulf fritillaries are common in the southern United States and Mexico. This butterfly is most populous in Florida and Texas but ranges as far north as Kansas. They also range throughout most of Northern Mexico.

They are also one of the most abundant butterfly species found in Hawaii.

Host Plants and diet

Female butterflies tend to lay small yellow eggs on suitable host plants, which provide good structure and habitat. Luckily for Gulf fritillaries, their eggs can be nurtured and protected on passion vine plants. This is why females lay eggs on several passionflower vines:

  • Maypops
  • Yellow passionflower
  • Running pop
  • Corky stem passionflower
  • Purple passionflower

Plants in the genus Passiflora spp are the main caterpillar food plants. On the other hand, adult butterflies act as pollinators and eat nectar from many flowers, such as:

  • Lantana plants
  • Passiflora lutea
  • Shepherd’s needle

Behavior during mating

Males fly around, looking for females. The overall courtship display starts when a male lands near a perching female, resting on a host plant. The male then assumes a position next to the female, keeping their heads together and their bodies at a 45-degree angle.

The male will then start clasping his wings open and closed. During that time, the female’s antennae are placed between the male’s wings. After the male stops his courtship display, he will move and make genital contact with the female. The average duration of the whole process is 11 seconds.

The oviposition process starts when the female begins flying around the host plants. Then, she will pause above an individual plant. She’ll land on that plant, and check for the right chemical composition of the plant. If everything matches, she’ll begin to lay eggs all around it.

Usual Predators

Gulf fritillaries sometimes compete and fight with other butterflies, such as Zebra longwing, while in similar breeding areas. Additionally, their main predators are birds.

Are Gulf Fritillary Butterflies Poisonous?

Gulf fritillaries are not poisonous, but they can defend themselves easily. These butterflies have defensive glands located in their abdomens. When they sense danger or are disturbed, they’ll emit a distinct and obvious smell made of a few types of chemicals. These compounds will deter the birds.

Do Gulf Fritillary Butterflies Migrate?

Adult butterflies will migrate north in the spring. During that time, they will form temporary breeding colonies. Once the cold days come back, Gulf fritillary will head south to peninsular Florida and Mexico for warmer weather.

Those located in the south will overwinter. The exact number of broods hasn’t been determined. However, it’s known that the Gulf fritillary has several broods in the spring and summer. The population peaks in August through November.

What to Plant in Your Garden to Attract Gulf Fritillary Butterflies?

If you wish to attract Gulf fritillary butterflies to your garden and help increase their population, you should plant flowers from the genus Passiflora. These are the caterpillar’s host plants and serve as the primary food source for the larva. Passion vine is perfect.

On the other hand, adults eat nectar from various plants, mostly lantanas. Lantana plants are the ideal choice to include in your garden, as they come in a mix of colors.

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