Do Tiger Swallowtails Migrate? Unraveling the Mystery of Their Seasonal Journey

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Tiger swallowtails are well-known butterflies admired for their beauty and size. The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) can be found throughout the eastern United States, with populations extending slightly west of the Mississippi River and even into several Mexican states 1.

While some butterfly species are known to migrate long distances, such as the famous Monarch butterfly, the question of whether Tiger Swallowtails migrate remains less explored. Understanding their migration patterns, if any, can help us protect their habitats and support their role as pollinators in various ecosystems.

Tiger Swallowtail Species

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is a common and beautiful butterfly species found in the United States. They are mostly found east of the Mississippi river and a bit farther west into the Great Plains states 1. Some key features of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail include:

  • Wingspan: 3.12 to 5.5 inches (7.9 to 14.0 cm) 2
  • Adults: yellow with four black bands
  • Females: optionally dark colored with a row of yellow spots

Canadian Tiger Swallowtail

The Canadian Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio canadensis), a close relative to the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, is native to North America, predominantly in Canada 3. The features and characteristics of Canadian Tiger Swallowtail are:

  • Wingspan: Similar to Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
  • Adapted to colder climates
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Canadian Tiger Swallowtail
Native To United States Canada
Wingspan 3.12 to 5.5 inches Similar to Eastern Swallowtail
Coloration Yellow with four black bands Similar to Eastern Swallowtail
Habitat East of the Mississippi River North America (predominantly Canada)

These two species of swallowtails share many similarities in physical attributes, but their geographic distributions and habitat preferences differ. Both species are important pollinators for various flowering plants, playing a significant role in their ecosystems.

Life Cycle and Stages

Eggs

The life cycle of the tiger swallowtail butterfly begins with eggs. Female butterflies lay their green eggs on host plants, where caterpillars can later feed on the leaves. Here are some features of the eggs:

  • Green color
  • Laid on host plants
  • Provide nourishment for hatching caterpillars

Caterpillars

After hatching, the larva, or caterpillar, will eat the host plant leaves and grow rapidly. During this stage, the caterpillar utilizes a unique structure called an osmeterium to deter predators like ants. Important characteristics of the caterpillars include:

  • Feeding primarily on leaves
  • Rapid growth
  • Defense mechanism (osmeterium)

Chrysalis and Pupa

When a caterpillar has grown sufficiently, it enters the pupal stage. The caterpillar forms a chrysalis, protecting itself during metamorphosis. Key features of this stage are:

  • Formation of a chrysalis
  • Metamorphosis taking place
  • Transformation into an adult butterfly

Adult Butterflies

Finally, the adult butterfly emerges from the chrysalis. Adult tiger swallowtails have two primary forms: yellow and dark. The males are predominantly yellow, while the females can be either yellow or dark. Adult butterflies primarily focus on reproduction, and their colorful wings enable them to find mates easily.

Comparison between male and female tiger swallowtail butterflies:

Male Female
Color Yellow Yellow or Dark
Primary objective Reproduction Reproduction

To summarize:

  • Adult butterflies focus on reproduction
  • Males are yellow, females can be yellow or dark
  • Vibrant colors aid in finding mates

Habitat and Distribution

Geographical Range

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is a common and beautiful butterfly found in North America. Its distribution ranges from east of the Mississippi River to some Great Plains states1 and several Mexican states2. While the Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) is mostly found in the western regions of North America3.

Native Habitats

Tiger Swallowtails prefer native habitats such as:

  • Forests: Deciduous forests, where they often feed on the leaves of trees4.
  • Fields: Open fields with plenty of flowers for nectar4.
  • Parks: Urban parks and gardens, where they can find a variety of flowers4.

Sub-types of Tiger Swallowtails:

  • Yellow form: Seen in both male and female Eastern Tiger Swallowtails; characterized by yellow and black stripes5.
  • Female dark form: Females can also exhibit a black form with dark black stripes and blue scales on the hindwings5.

Comparison Table: Eastern vs. Western Tiger Swallowtails

Feature Eastern (P. glaucus) Western (P. rutulus)
Geographical Range East of Mississippi River Western regions of North America
Coloration Yellow form, Yellow/black Similar to Eastern, slight variations in colors

Do Tiger Swallowtails migrate?

  • Swallowtail species typically do not migrate6.
  • They go through a life cycle where they transform from eggs, larvae, pupae, and then adult butterflies6.

Host Plants and Diet

Preferred Trees

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly is known for its specific taste in host plants, particularly trees. One of their main preferences is black cherry trees, which also support a wide variety of other butterfly and moth species1. Other examples of preferred trees:

  • Sweetbay Magnolia
  • Tulip Poplar
  • Birch Trees

Nectar Sources

Adult tiger swallowtail butterflies enjoy nectar from various flowering species. Some common nectar plants they visit4 include:

  • Butterfly Bush
  • Cone Flowers
  • Milkweed
  • Phlox
  • Lilac
  • Ironweed
  • Wild Cherry

A table comparing two nectar sources for Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies:

Nectar Sources Flower Characteristics Butterfly Benefits
Butterfly Bush Fragrant, produces elongated spikes of tiny blooms Easily accessible nectar for feeding
Milkweed Clustered, colorful flowers Nutrient-rich nectar

In summary, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly utilizes specific host trees during its larval stage and relies on a variety of nectar sources as an adult. Providing these plants and trees in a garden can help support these beautiful insects.

Footnotes

  1. US Forest Service 2 3 4

  2. EDIS 2

  3. Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility 2

  4. https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/eastern-tiger-swallowtail 2 3 4

  5. https://www.fs.usda.gov/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/TigerSwallowtail.shtml 2

  6. https://www.fws.gov/page/habitat-conservation-plan-handbook-toolbox 2

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Another Tiger Swallowtail Caterpillar from Mexico

 

Beautiful Caterpillar
Bugman:
We are living in Patzcuaro, Michoacan, Mexico. We found this caterpillar in our yard. Some of the locals say that if you are bit by it, you will be down with a fever for several days. One of the coolest features is the visible pulsing of fluid down the black line along its back. Any clues as to what it is or will become? Thanks. My 6 year old son, Eli, will appreciate your response. The yogurt container in the photo is a quart size and the caterpillar is probably 7 or 8 cm long.
Don

Hi Don,
This is the second Tiger Swallowtail Caterpillar sent to us from Mexico today. The locals are wrong, though this caterpillar does have an interesting defense mechanism besides the protective markings which mimic a snake. Swallowtail Caterpillars possess an osmetrium, an orange forked scent organ that remains hidden until the caterpillar is provoked.

Letter 2 – Bug of the Month August 2020: Male and Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtails

 

Subject:  Eastern Tiger Swallowtails
Geographic location of the bug:  Campbell, Ohio
Date: 08/02/2020
Time: 11:10 AM EDT
Gentle Readers,
Daniel has been called out of town for a family emergency, and low and behold, he has finally entered the 21st Century by purchasing his first mobile phone, and he has been calling the iPhone 11 Pro he just bought his Magic Phone.  The magic phone takes gorgeous digital images, and Daniel has been taking images of the insects found in The Rust Belt.  Here are images of a male and female (blue scales on the underwings) Eastern Tiger Swallowtails that have been visiting the butterfly bush he is planting in his childhood front yard to replace the dead shrubs that are being removed.  Daniel apologizes for ignoring the numerous identification requests that have been flooding in, but family obligations are currently taking up most of his time.  Daniel hopes to also get some images of the Spicebush Swallowtails that he has seen in the past week.

The male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is smaller and lacks the blue scales on the underwings.
The larger female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail has beautiful blue scales on the underwings.

Letter 3 – Canadian Tiger Swallowtail

 

Alaska bug pictures
Here are some of my Tiger Swallowtail pictures (I believe it’s a Canadian Tiger Swallowtail). They are all of the same individual. As I get time, I will try to go through your site and see what I have that you don’t.
David

Hi David,
Thanks for sending the photo of Papilio canadensis, the Canadian Tiger Swallowtail.

Letter 4 – Canadian Tiger Swallowtail Caterpillar from Alaska

 

Subject: What type of caterpillar is this?
Location: Fairbanks Alaska
August 1, 2014 6:37 pm
Hey,
I live in Fairbanks, Alaska and this is the first time that I’ve seen one of these. We have a variety of butterflies and moths up here, but I’m not sure what species this particular one is. Any ideas?
Signature: Chris

Canadian Tiger Swallowtail Caterpillar
Canadian Tiger Swallowtail Caterpillar

Dear Chris,
This is one of the Tiger Swallowtail Caterpillars, and there are many regional species.  We have trouble distinguishing one caterpillar from another, so we are researching ranges to help determine the species.  According to TurtlePuddle on the Canadian Tiger Swallowtail,
Papilio canadensis:  “These large and beautiful butterflies have been unusually abundant throughout the Anchorage area this summer (2002). … They are usually found in or near deciduous or mixed forests. They overwinter in the chrysalis. They range across much of Canada, Alaska, and several other northern states of the US. Adults nectar on a wide variety of flowers.”  According to BugGuide, the Canadian Tiger Swallowtail ranges in:  “northern US, Alaska, and every province and territory of Canada, north to the tundra” and “larvae feed on a wide variety of plants, including ash, cherry, poplar, and willow.”  BugGuide also has images of the caterpillar.

That was fast, thanks dan!

Letter 5 – Canadian Tiger Swallowtails attracted to putrefying flesh

 

Canadian Tiger Swallowtail
Sun, Apr 26, 2009 at 6:32 PM
I found these butterflies resting around a severed moose leg in Northern Ontario.
Katrena
Timmins

Canadian Swallowtails and severed moose leg
Canadian Swallowtails and severed moose leg

Goodness Gracious Katrena …
Was a former American vice-presidential candidate in your area?    Male swallowtail butterflies are often attracted to mud puddles where they drink in the moisture which contains essential minerals like sodium.  This behavior is known as a puddle party or just puddling.  We have also heard that they are attracted to urine and fresh feces and perhaps to putrifying flesh, presumably for the same reason.  We located an image of Pipevine Swallowtails on horse dung online.  There are some awesome puddling photos on this website.  The encyclopedia of Arkansas history butterflies and moths page indicates:  “The males of many butterfly species gather at damp areas to imbibe mineral salts, known as “mud-puddling.” Males use these salts for their own bodily functions, but they pass them to the female in the spermatophore during copulation. These mineral salts seem to aid female egg production. Males and females may be observed imbibing mineral salts and amino acids from carnivore scat, horse urine, and rotting animal carcasses.”  You photo of Canadian Tiger Swallowtails, Papilio canadensis, with a severed moose leg will make quite the conversation piece on our site.  Thanks so much for sending us the image.

Letter 6 – Deformed Tiger Swallowtail

 

Subject: Butterfly/Moth
Location: Indiana
January 17, 2017 7:36 pm
Found this butterfly/moth unable to fly. I tried to offer it some sugar water and fruit, but it didn’t live long after I found it.
Signature: Eliza

Deformed Tiger Swallowtail

Dear Eliza,
This is a Tiger Swallowtail, and for some reason its wings failed to expand after emerging from the Chrysalis.

Letter 7 – Dragonhunter eats Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

 

Subject:  unknown dragonfly
Geographic location of the bug:  sidney, ohio
Date: 08/11/2021
Time: 05:53 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  As it was happening, I couldn’t identify the animal or its action but with a zoomed image from my camera I see that a dragonfly is eating the butterfly.  Later that day I found a wing from the butterfly under this power line.
I live in Sidney, Ohio, USA.  This picture was taken 2 Aug ’21.
I believe that I’ve identified the butterfly as an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.  I was excited to find what I believed to be the identification of the dragonfly.  It looks very much like a Male Southern Vicetail, Hemigomphus gouldii as pictured here (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Green_eyes_dragonfly_HNP_face_(16072822547).jpg).
I was disheartened when I learned that the Vicetail is indigenous to southeastern Australia so probably not my dragonfly.
Any help in its identification is greatly appreciated.
How you want your letter signed:  Charlie

Dragonhunter eats Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Dear Charlie,
Daniel has been in Northeast Ohio for two weeks now and the butterflies, Lightning Bugs and Cicadas are all amazing this year.  Your Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is a female as evidenced by the blue scales on the hind wings.  We turned to Ohio Dragonflies to identify this impressive hunter and we believe we have identified it as a Dragon Hunter on pg 44 where it states:  “
While not very common, when seen this dragonfly will be noticed and remembered. It is our largest clubtail and probably the heaviest of all Ohio dragonflies. Its large thorax and small head are distinctive. As the name suggests, it eats large prey including dragonflies up to the size of the swift river cruiser. They are very sensitive to pollution, and thus require clean streams. The distinctive, large (1 to 1.5-inch across) roundish-shaped larvae spend up to four years living under leaf litter and bark debris at the river’s edge.”  This BugGuide image is a very close match to the eyes and yellow thoracic markings evident in your image.  Thanks for submitting this awesome Food Chain image.

Letter 8 – Bug of the Month September 2012: Tiger Swallowtails, including dark form female

 

Ed. Note:  The first of September caught up on us and we never selected a Bug of the Month.  We have been especially interested in posting photos of Tiger Swallowtails of late, and there have been many good submissions, so we decided to take this recent posting and upgrade it to the Bug of the Month.

Subject: Butterfly Bush Visitors
Location: Western North Carolina
August 29, 2012 5:11 pm
It’s been sunny, hot and dry here in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina. I’ve noticed some of the visitors to my butterfly bushes only appear when the sun is shining while others are there every day. Some are becoming ragged and torn but it doesn’t seem to slow them down. I also have a stinging kind of visitor I’ve never seen before this summer. Here are a few pics taken today.
Signature: Diz

Tiger Swallowtail

Hi Diz,
Thanks for sending all your butterfly and bee photos.  We are just posting two images of Tiger Swallowtails and we are especially pleased with the image showing two individuals, including one dark form female, though she is quite tattered.  Your photos are surely an advertisement for the butterfly bush or
Buddleia for anyone who wants to attract butterflies to the garden.

Dark and Light Tiger Swallowtails

 

Authors

  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

    View all posts
  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

    View all posts
Tags: Tiger Swallowtails

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • My name is Carletta Hall and this comment is not for the swallow-tailed this comment is for the springtails my body has been being infested with these things for over 3 years they get into everything with the human touch and I’ll try just about everything except Lysol to get them off of my body I found it coconut oils or lavender scented things they are repulsed by but the eggs they lay in my hair and other parts of my body just my total body I can’t get ahead of them I really need some help here and doctors some people you tell they can’t conceive that above could be on your body like this and you can’t get the things off not to the satisfaction of them not reproducing on you please help me I would other testimonials about these bugs and not have the same symptoms that I do please reply or comments help me thank you

    Reply
  • jennifer correia
    August 31, 2021 4:49 pm

    Hello we found this exact caterpillar in our back yard in Coeur d’Alene Idaho. I have a picture of you would like to see it. Do you possibly know why or how this guy is here in Idaho at the very end of August?

    Reply
  • We just found one in Bear Lake, Ut the 6th of September

    Reply
  • 5500 feet on Catson City Nevada. I’ve got that caterpillar here !

    Reply

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