A Close Look of the Stunning Zebra Longwing Butterfly

The Zebra longwing butterfly lives in North, Central, and South America and is unique for its aposematic flight pattern–a move they typically use to warn off potential predators. It's also the state butterfly of Florida.

Zebra longwing species summary

Scientific NameHeliconius charithonia, zebra heliconian
Family NameNymphalidae
HabitatShady areas, open spaces, roadsides, forests
RangeCentral and South America, West Indies, the US
Host PlantsPassiflora plants
Butterfly DescriptionElongated wings with black and white stripes
Caterpillar DescriptionWhibe body with peppered black spots and black spines

Zebra longwing Description

Zebra Longwing Butterfly on a Leaf
Zebra longwing butterfly on a leaf

The Zebra longwing butterfly’s wingspan can range from 3 to 4 inches. Therefore, it is classified as a medium-sized butterfly.

The dorsal side of the narrow and elongated wings has narrow faint white and yellow stripes placed against a black base. On the other hand, the ventral side shows a similar but blurred version with red spots near the medial side as the main difference between the two sides.

This butterfly species is a monomorphic insect because it doesn’t have variations in wing color and patterns for males and females. You can say that the general pattern of wings for both sexes looks like zebra stripes; thus, their name.

The difference between a zebra longwing and a zebra swallowtail butterfly

Both butterflies are characterized by black and yellow stripes. However, the Zebra longwing has longer wings compared to the swallowtail species. Additionally, the Zebra swallowtail has 2 tails on its hindwings and a more triangular wing shape.

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Caterpillar Physical Description

Zebra heliconian caterpillars hatch from yellow eggs. These eggs are usually laid in clusters or as isolated pieces against sprouts of the chosen host plants (an average of five to 15 eggs at a time).

The larvae bodies are white with a long black vertical line crossing the middle part of their dorsal thorax. Tiny black dots pepper the entire length of their bodies, including their yellow heads. They also have prominent black spikes all over their bodies.

Ideal Habitat

In general, these butterflies prefer shady areas. Some of the places where the Zebra longwing butterflies love to stay are:

  • Urban/Man-made butterfly gardens
  • Adjacent open areas
  • Road edges
  • Damp and warm tropical areas
  • Suburban parks and yards
  • Shrubby thickets
  • Woodlands with nearby coasts
  • Moist forests
  • Tropical and subtropical hammocks
  • Fields
  • Forest margins

What is the host plant for a zebra butterfly?

Zebra longwing caterpillars need an equal proportion of carbohydrates and protein for a holistic diet. Therefore, the adult butterflies lay their eggs and let the larvae feed on the following plants:

  • Two-flower passionflower (Passiflora biflora)
  • Corky-stemmed passionflower (Passiflora suberosa)
  • Yellow passionflower (Passiflora lutea)
  • Purple passionflower/Maypop (Passiflora incarnata L.)
  • Passionflower vines

The relationship with the passiflora plants

Zebra longwing female butterflies love to lay their eggs on Passiflora plants, a species with fine appendages called trichomes. Trichomes are the plants’ defense mechanisms against herbivores. By laying eggs on this host plant, the female ensures the larvae will have increased chances of survival.


Adult butterflies usually feed on pollen and nectar. Feeding on pollen allows them to extend their lifespan for a few more months. Should they opt not to feed on pollen (or if there’s scarcity for some reason), their average lifespan will last 2 to 4 weeks.

Mating behavior and flight

The Zebra heliconian butterfly reproduces more than once annually. They are prevalent, regardless of the time of year.

One of the factors that may contribute to this is their tendency to mate as soon as they emerge from their chrysalis. Because of this, adult male butterflies usually wait outside the female chrysalides to be the first to mate with the newly-emerged butterfly.

Some enthusiastic or impatient ones break through the pupas to ensure mating with the female butterfly. For this reason, it’s rare for these butterflies to mate with their relatives, thus significantly lowering their inbreeding rates.

Matured adult butterflies typically utilize a relaxed and slow flight pattern. They wiggle their bodies to create creaking sounds when disturbed.

Zebras and communal roost

Unlike other butterfly species, Zebra longwing butterflies love to gather in small groups at night. These butterfly swarms are sometimes referred to as communal roosts.

Communal roosts commonly take place on tree trunks and limbs. They return to the same spot every night to gather in large groups—an act to deter their predators.

What is the zebra longwing butterfly’s predator?

Some of the predators that these butterflies fight off include the following:

  • Birds
  • Spiders
  • Ants
  • Wasps

Where are zebra longwing butterflies found?

Aside from Central and South America, Zebra longwing butterflies live in the following US locations:

  • Florida
  • Nebraska
  • New Mexico
  • South Carolina
  • Texas

It’s also present in West Indies and Mexico. Additionally, Zebra longwing is the state butterfly of Florida.

Do zebra longwing butterflies migrate?

These butterflies may migrate with the temperature changes. They might move from Mexico to Texas, depending on the season. Unfortunately, those located in North Florida may freeze during colder winters.

Can you touch zebra longwing butterflies?

You should avoid touching the Zebra longwing, as it’s very delicate. However, if you really must touch the caterpillar, know its black spines are actually soft and won’t hurt you.

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