Meet Long-living Mourning Cloak Butterfly

A Mourning cloak butterfly, also known by its other common names White Petticoat, Grand Surprise, and Camberwell Beauty, is a butterfly that lives in North America, unique for a relatively long lifespan compared to other butterfly species.

Mourning Cloak Species Summary

Scientific NameNymphalis antiopa
Family NameNymphalidae
HabitatParks, suburbs, and gardens
RangeNorth America and Eurasia
Host PlantsHackberry, cottonwood, poplar, rose, and birch
Butterfly DescriptionDeep maroon wings shade with black and yellow bands
Caterpillar DescriptionBlack and dotted with small light markings and fine white hairs

What makes this butterfly unique?

The Mourning cloak butterfly was named after its black and white wing patterns that resemble the cloak women use when they mourn. This species lives up to 10 months, way longer than many other butterflies.

They are also nocturnal and typically spend most of their waking hours looking for food or their potential mate.

Butterfly Taxonomy and Description

Mourning Cloak Butterfly
Mourning Cloak Butterfly

Mourning cloak butterflies, Nymphalis antiopa, family Nymphalidae, order Lepidoptera, appear to have four legs since they belong to “brush-footed” butterflies. The first pair of legs are actually tiny and hairy.

The average wingspan of a Mourning cloak butterfly can measure as far as 3 inches (7.62 cm). This makes it one of the largest butterfly species.

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The dorsal parts of their wings have a deep maroon shade and black and yellow bands covering most of the costal areas of both forewings and hindwings. Bright, iridescent blue dots are present between the dark brown base and ragged yellow bands on the edges of the wings, making this butterfly easy to recognize.

The ventral parts of the wings are predominantly black, and the texture resembles charred wood.

Caterpillar Physical Description

The larva’s body is black and occasionally dotted with small light markings and fine white hairs. Each segment contains a transverse row of scoli (branched spikes), while the lateral sides are separated with a reddish-orange patch that runs along the entire dorsal length of the caterpillar.

The caterpillars feed in groups, moving to another branch once they completely eat the first one. They’ll feed for about 6 weeks.

A Mourning cloak caterpillar can measure up to 2 inches (5 cm) in length once it reaches its full size. It will then transition into a gray chrysalis.

How long is the transition phase from a chrysalis to a butterfly?

It usually takes about 3 weeks for the butterfly to emerge from the pupa. As soon as it comes out of the chrysalis that resembles a dead and dry leaf and it will spend at least a couple of hours drying its wings before making its first few attempts to fly.

Are mourning cloak butterfly caterpillars poisonous?

The Mourning cloak butterfly’s spiny elm caterpillar is reported to have venomous spikes that cause unpleasant sensations. It won’t sting, but you shouldn’t touch it.

Are these caterpillars considered pests?

Complete branch defoliation is a sure sign of caterpillar presence. Still, these caterpillars rarely damage healthy trees, so control is usually unnecessary. Biological products and pesticides are recommended only if the numbers increase.

mourning cloak butterfly ideal Habitat

Mourning Cloak Butterfly
Mourning Cloak Butterfly

The Mourning cloak butterfly prefers to stay in parks, suburbs, and gardens. It also frequents open woodlands and forest borders. Other habitats include:

  • Fields
  • Streams
  • Sunny glades
  • Groves
  • Riparian areas
  • Ponds
  • Lakes

Host Plants

The female adult Mourning cloak butterflies have been seen laying eggs and brooding on deciduous trees, including hackberry, cottonwood, poplar, rose, and birch. Other host plants are:

  • Black willow (Salix nigra)
  • Silky willow (Salix sericea)
  • American elm (Ulmus americana)
  • Weeping willow (Salix babylonica)
  • Aspen (Populus tremuloides)

What do mourning cloak butterflies eat?

The adult Mourning cloak butterflies take the flower nectar, rotting fruit, and sap of deciduous trees as the primary sources of nutrition. Mud and dunk are also sources of nutrients for these butterflies.

butterfly Behavior

The male adult butterflies are polygynous and will mate with at least two partners within one breeding season. Males will fly around the areas abundant with host plants, looking for suitable partners.

Aside from the apparent search for a partner, this butterfly displays its tendency to be territorial. It sends the other males a message that it will defend its desired spots. Then it will settle within that place to reproduce with the females.

The Mourning cloak butterfly is known to fly around a wide range of areas. Due to its strong wings, it has powerful flight patterns.

Mourning cloak butterflies also resort to hibernation (overwintering) to survive harsh cold climates. They typically hide under tree barks and between tree cavities during winter.

most common mourning cloak Predators

The animals and insects below are considered the natural enemies of the Mourning Cloak butterflies:

  • Exorista mella
  • Probocampe confusa
  • Lespesia frenchii
  • Compsilura concinnata
  • Madremyia saundersii

How do these butterflies get rid of their predators?

The Mourning cloak butterflies typically lay dead when predators threaten them. When they suddenly drop to the ground, the predators think they may just be fallen dry leaves or debris and will eventually leave them alone.

mourning cloak butterfly range

There have been sightings of the Mourning cloak butterflies in North America and Eurasia. Some US states where you’ll likely see it include New Hampshire and Montana.

Are mourning cloak butterflies endangered?

These butterflies have a “not extinct” status, meaning they’re not endangered. Still, they’re rare in Florida and North Carolina.

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