Meet the Viceroy Butterfly: the monarch mimic

The Viceroy butterfly is a toxic orange/brown butterfly, quite similar to several other species, including Monarchs. It lives in the US and Canada and feeds on flower nectar, carrion, dung, and fungi.

Viceroy Butterfly Species summary

Scientific NameLimenitis archippus
Family NameNymphalidae
Kingdom Animalia
Genus Limenitis
HabitatRivers, meadows, swamps
RangeMostly Canada and the US
Host PlantsWillows and poplars
Butterfly DescriptionOrange/brown wing base, with prominent black veins, a horizontal line on the hindwings, and some white spots
Caterpillar DescriptionWhitish brown

What is the difference between a monarch butterfly and a viceroy butterfly?

The Viceroy butterfly’s average wingspan is about 2.2 to 3.1 inches, making it smaller than the Monarch. Furthermore, Viceroy butterflies possess horizontal black lines found a bit after the middle part of the hindwing.

In general, Viceroy butterflies appear dark orange with black veins that take up more than half of the wingspan. White spots sit along the edges of both wings.

the Viceroy vs. the tropical queen vs. the queen butterfly

Because of its overall physical characteristics, the Viceroy butterfly is similar to the Tropical queen (Danaus eresimus) and the Queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus). One way to recognize the Viceroy is via the line on its hindwings and prominent black veins. Both queens lack this feature and are slightly muted brown.

the Viceroy Caterpillar Description

Viceroy caterpillar
Viceroy caterpillar

While the adult Viceroy looks almost identical to several other species, its caterpillar is unique. The first instar appears reddish-brown with hints of yellow markings that span the entire length of the thorax (sometimes olive-brown with white markings).

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Once it reaches the second instar stage, it will appear as a deeper shade of brown with some yellow markings appearing like patches along the entire body. Eventually, it will develop a saddle, usually found along the middle part of its thorax.

It eventually turns darker as the Viceroy larva reaches the third instar stage. The caterpillar will look like a shade of gray or black with some hints of brown spots along the thorax.

The Viceroy caterpillar can grow between 1.5 to 2.5 inches before creating a pupa around its body.

Where do viceroy butterflies live?

Adult Viceroy butterflies typically frequent these habitats:

  • Rivers
  • Meadows
  • Swamps 
  • Marshes
  • Ponds

They frequent Northwest Territories (Canada), the Cascade Range, Sierra Nevada, and Florida (the US). Aside from North America, Viceroy butterflies have been found in various parts of Central Mexico

Preferred Host Plants

Female Viceroy butterflies lay their eggs and feed on the following plants:

  • Willows
  • Cottonwoods
  • Poplars
  • Other trees classified under the Salicaceae family
  • Flowers from the Asteraceae family

Usual Food sources

Viceroy butterflies aren’t picky eaters. As part of their diet, adult Viceroy butterflies feed on the following as their primary sources of nectar:

  • Thistles
  • Asters
  • Goldenrod
  • Milkweeds

When a nectar source is unavailable, Viceroy butterflies resort to carrion, dung, and fungi as their alternative sources of nutrition.

Behavior and defense methods

Because of its striking resemblance to the Monarch butterfly, the Viceroy butterfly was previously considered the Monarch’s Batesian mimic. However, because they are both unattractive to predators, they are now regarded as Mullerian mimics of each other. 

Another defense method that Viceroy butterflies practiced over the years is the development of their flight patterns to ensure that they can spread as much of their chemical defense as possible in their immediate surroundings.

As for caterpillars, they protect themselves by coating their entire bodies with salicylic acid. This makes them bitter and unpalatable to potential predators because they can cause upset stomachs when consumed.

When they reach the pupal stage, the chrysalis will resemble bird droppings.

Third instars hibernate for about 4 months. Viceroy butterflies are predominantly diurnal. They prefer mating in the late parts of the morning until the early afternoon.


Viceroy butterflies’ main enemies are birds. Other predators tend to avoid this butterfly species.

Why do predators avoid the viceroy butterfly?

Viceroy butterflies have foul smell and taste, so predators avoid them. They also look like Monarch butterflies, and predators deem they are toxic. Plus, their pupa looks like a bird dropping, so it effectively camouflages and stays safe.

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