Mourning Cloak Butterfly: All You Need to Know in a Nutshell

The Mourning Cloak Butterfly, known scientifically as Nymphalis antiopa, is a large and vibrant butterfly that offers a wonderful sight for nature lovers. This fascinating species is often considered a harbinger of spring due to its early appearance in the season. In fact, some Mourning Cloaks have been observed to live up to a year, making them one of the longest-lived butterfly species in North America ^(1).

This stunning butterfly possesses an extraordinary ability to warm up its body by shivering, which enables it to fly even when the temperature is relatively low, around 65°F ^(2). In addition, the Mourning Cloak’s unique coloring, characterized by a yellow or white border around its wings, has historical significance—it was named after the cloaks worn during mourning periods in medieval Germany and Scandinavia ^(3).

Mourning Cloak Butterfly Basics

Name and Species

The Mourning Cloak Butterfly is scientifically known as Nymphalis antiopa, belonging to the Nymphalidae family.

Physical Appearance

  • Wingspan: typically between 3 and 3.5 inches
  • Key features:
    • Deep Maroon or Black wings
    • Light or yellow bands near the edges
    • Bright blue spots

Geographical Range

Mourning Cloak Butterflies inhabit various regions:

  • North America (including Mexico and Gulf States)
  • Eurasia
  • Tundra environments

Habitat

These butterflies inhabit various habitats:

  • Forests
  • Residential areas
  • Suburbs

Lifespan

Mourning Cloak Butterflies have an impressive lifespan:

Feature Mourning Cloak Butterfly
Wingspan 3 to 3.5 inches
Color Maroon or Black wings with light or yellow bands
Habitat Forests, residential areas, suburbs
Geographical Range North America, Eurasia, Tundra environments
Lifespan Adults live up to nearly a year

Lifecycle and Behavior

From Eggs to Caterpillars

The Mourning Cloak Butterfly begins its life as eggs laid by females on the twigs of host plants in spring. These eggs are small and yellowish-green. Caterpillars hatch in late spring to early summer, moving on to the next stage of their development.(source)

Caterpillar Stage

Once hatched, caterpillars are black and covered in spines. They live in communal webs and actively feed on the host plant’s leaves. During this stage, they grow rapidly and undergo a series of molts to accommodate their growth.(source)

Chrysalis and Transformation

After reaching full size, caterpillars enter the chrysalis stage. They create a well-camouflaged, brown chrysalis attached to a twig or leaf. The butterfly undergoes a transformative process called metamorphosis, and after about 10 days, the adult Mourning Cloak Butterfly emerges.(source)

Adult Butterfly Stage

Newly emerged adult butterflies sport reddish-purple wings with light-colored edges, resembling a cloak. They possess a wingspan of up to 4 inches, making them one of the larger butterfly species. Adult Mourning Cloaks nectar on tree sap, rotting fruit, or even carrion rather than flowers.(source)

Mating and Reproduction

Adults mate in spring, and females lay eggs on suitable host plants, starting the lifecycle anew. The Mourning Cloak is known for its unique mating habits, including elaborate courtship displays and dances.(source)

Overwintering

One fascinating aspect of the Mourning Cloak Butterfly is its overwintering behavior. Instead of migrating to warmer areas or dying off, they overwinter as adults, hiding under tree bark or in crevices. This enables them to be among the first butterflies seen in spring.(source)

Diet and Feeding Habits

Caterpillar Diet

The Mourning Cloak Butterfly, or Nymphalis antiopa, has a different diet when it’s in its caterpillar stage. Caterpillars feast on the leaves of various host plants, including:

  • Birch
  • Elm
  • Willow
  • Oak

These plants serve as essential sources of nutrition for the growing caterpillars and are crucial to their survival. Caterpillars tend to emerge in late spring to early summer and live in communal webs on these host plants’ twigs, where they feed on the newer leaves.

Adult Butterfly Diet

As the Mourning Cloak Butterfly reaches adulthood, its diet changes. Adult Mourning Cloaks prefer to consume:

  • Tree sap
  • Rotting fruit

Tree sap is the primary food source, and they can often be found feeding on sap from sapsucker holes in the bark of various trees. Rotting fruits provide an alternative food source that they can also enjoy.

Although it’s not their favorite, Mourning Cloak Butterflies do consume flower nectar occasionally. However, their preferred diet consists mainly of tree sap and rotting fruit.

Here’s a comparison table of the Mourning Cloak Butterfly’s diet at different life stages:

Life Stage Preferred Diet
Caterpillar Leaves from birch, elm, willow, and oak
Adult Butterfly Tree sap and rotting fruit

Remember to follow the Mourning Cloak Butterfly’s journey throughout its life to better understand its unique feeding habits and preferences.

Mourning Cloak Butterfly and Its Environment

Interaction with Host Plants

The Mourning Cloak Butterfly relies on several types of trees for its survival. Its caterpillars primarily feed on leaves from deciduous trees like aspen, poplar, and cottonwood. These trees are often found in wooded areas, providing the necessary habitat for these butterflies.

  • Host plants include:
    • Aspen
    • Poplar
    • Cottonwood

Contribution to Ecosystem

Mourning Cloak Butterflies are essential members of the ecosystems they inhabit. As brush-footed butterflies, they help contribute to the pollination process. Although not all of their diet consists of flower nectar, they do visit flowers occasionally, inadvertently facilitating plant reproduction.

Relation with Pollinators

These butterflies have a unique relationship with other pollinators. While they are not as efficient as bees, their occasional flower visits still contribute to pollination.

  • Pollinators they interact with:
    • Bees
    • Other butterflies and moths

Threats and Conservation Status

The Mourning Cloak Butterfly is not currently considered to be at risk. However, they face general threats common to other butterflies and moths of North America, such as habitat loss. Their conservation status depends on maintaining their essential wooded environments with an abundance of host plants. Habitats can be preserved through sustainable forestry practices and by planting suitable trees, like aspens, poplars, and cottonwoods.

Interesting Facts and Trivia

The Mourning Cloak Butterfly, or Nymphalis antiopa, belongs to the Nymphalidae family of butterflies. Some interesting facts and features of this unique butterfly include:

  • It has brown wings with a pale yellow margin, resembling a cloak and giving it its name1.
  • The wings also have iridescent blue dots around the edges, adding a pop of color1.

These butterflies can be found in various locations, such as parks and areas with trees like the American elm and paper birch23. Their native range spans across temperate North America and Eurasia1. In some states, like Montana, the Mourning Cloak is even recognized as the state insect4.

When it comes to the Mourning Cloak’s life cycle, this butterfly stands out in several ways:

  • It’s one of the earliest flying butterflies in spring, mainly because it overwinters as an adult in tree crevices2.
  • Mourning Cloak butterflies are believed to be long-lived, with some adults living almost a year4.

Additionally, the larvae, also known as Spiny Elm Caterpillars, can be found on particular host plants like elms and Salix3. These caterpillars have distinct red spots, white speckles, and spines3.

Even though their primary color is brown, the Mourning Cloak is sometimes called the Camberwell Beauty or Nymphalis antiopa in Europe, and occasionally exhibits an orange color5. This versatile species can be found as far north as Scandinavia and as far south as Florida5, showcasing the adaptability of the Mourning Cloak Butterfly.

Table: Mourning Cloak Butterfly vs. Tortoiseshells

Feature Mourning Cloak Butterfly Tortoiseshells
Primary wing color Brown Varies (typically orange)
Marginal wing color Pale yellow Amber yellow
Blue or brown dots? Blue Dots Brown Dots
State Insect? Yes4 No

Footnotes

  1. University of Colorado – Mourning Cloak Butterfly 2 3

  2. Illinois Extension – Mourning Cloak Butterfly 2

  3. North Carolina State University – Mourning Cloak Butterfly/Spiny Elm Caterpillar 2 3

  4. University of Minnesota – Mourning Cloak Butterfly 2 3

  5. University of Florida – Mourning Cloak Butterfly 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 – Mourning Cloak

 

We have been trying to get a good photo of an elusive Mourning Cloak Butterfly, Nymphalis antiopa, for several weeks. On sunny days, we see one flying around our Mt. Washington offices, and they are also frequently seen in Elyria Canyon. Needless to say, the camera is never handy, or charged. Today, we were removing a fuschia from a hanging basket and noticed a dried leaf. Lo and behold, it was actually a Mourning Cloak Butterfly still asleep. We charged the camera and were rewarded with this image.

Letter 2 – Mourning Cloak

 

Mouring Cloak with open wings…
As I went out to my garage earlier, I saw this butterfly in there go up the rafters so I ran in the house to get the camera and this is what I found:I checked your site and there were 2 or 3 pics but they were all closed wings. and one with closed wings. I live in north San Diego County in Vista and I think it was trying to cool down as it is about 90-95 degrees here right now.

It is our observation in Los Angeles the Mourning Cloaks are plentiful this year.

Letter 3 – Mourning Cloak

 

Butterfly
I have been photographing butterflies in eastern Nebraska for some time, but this is the first I’ve seen of the one in the photo attached. I can’t find it in my National Audubon Society field guide. It’s approximately the same size as a red spotted purple. Can you tell me what kind it is? Thanks!
Doug Wulf

Hi Doug,
Judging by its ragged appearance and the time of year, we suspect your Mourning Cloak, Nymphalis antiopa, has hibernated and emerged once the spring sun warmed the air. These butterflies overwinter so are often among the first butterflies of spring. Our Audubon Guide has it pictured on plate 625.

Letter 4 – Mating Mourning Cloaks

 

Brown Butterflies Mating in Flagstaff, AZ
Wed, Apr 29, 2009 at 3:50 PM
Hello, today, April 29, 2009, I noticed 2 brown butterflies mating on the side-railing of my porch. At first, I thought the wood was peeling and went closer to pull it off, but realized that they were butterflies in the throes of passion 🙂 They remained very still, but intermittently would flap their wings. I watched them for about 30 minutes and took several pictures and video. Although I attempted to identify what type they were by searching on the internet, there are far too many species for a non-etymologist like myself to even narrow it down. Bugman, please help me to identify these unknown butterfly lovers!
Beatrix G.
Flagstaff, Arizona

mating Mourning Cloaks
mating Mourning Cloaks

Hi Beatrix,
We love Mourning Cloak Butterflies, or Camberwell Beauties as they are called in England. The Mourning Cloak, which hibernates in the winter, is a harbinger of spring in many parts of the world. It is often the first butterfly seen when it begins to warm and the days are sunny. We are thrilled to have your image of a mating couple.

Letter 5 – Bug of the Month May 2020: Mourning Cloak

 

Subject:  Dark Winged Beauty
Geographic location of the bug:  Ventura, California
Date: 05/25/2020
Time: 07:27 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Dear Bugman,
I have noticed this beauty on my patio the past few days. It stays close and sometimes pauses  briefly to bask in the sunlight. I was hoping to catch a picture of the open wing span, but instead it kept it’s wings together, eventually took flight   pausing mid air about 6 inches from my face and then departed.
How you want your letter signed:  Melanie in the Irish Chain

Mourning Cloak

Dear Melanie on the Irish Chain,
Thank you so much for your entertaining telephone call describing this beauty, and you actually identified it as a Mourning Cloak during the call.  You are absolutely correct.  The Mourning Cloak often basks in the sun, and it is rarely seen nectaring from flowers.  According to BugGuide:  “Adults feed primarily on tree sap (oaks preferred) and rotting fruit; only occasionally on flower nectar.”  Your posting lured Daniel back to the site he has ignored for nearly five weeks, and he has never in the eighteen years the site has existed, been away that long, even in the early days of exhausted band width when after about ten days, Daniel could post no more until the first of the next month.  Thanks again for our enjoyable morning conversations and for making Daniel realize he really does need to make at least one posting per day.  Though the month is nearly over, Daniel never selected a Bug of the Month for May 2020, so since it is the first identification request we have filled since April 21, it is now the Bug of the Month for May 2020.

Letter 6 – Mourning Cloak

 

Subject:  Mourning Cloak not yet awake in the morning
Geographic location of the bug:  Mount Washington, Los Angeles, California
Date: 04/15/2021
Time: 06:55 AM PDT
Daniel had to leave early this morning for an MRI and he noticed a dark shape near the curb under a wisteria that is dropping dried blossoms.  Closer inspection revealed a Mourning Cloak that spent the night on the ground and because the sun hadn’t yet hit it, it was still quite lethargic.  Daniel has been seeing Mourning Cloaks flying for several weeks now.

Mourning Cloak

Letter 7 – Mourning Cloak Chrysalids

 

Can you identify this chrysalis?
I encountered four chrysalis hanging from the doorframe of a storage shed (Altadena, California, USA–Los Angeles area). Can you identify the species? 3 jpegs attached. Thanks,
Mike Hickman

Hi Mike,
These are Mourning Cloak butterfly chrysalids. There is a great photo on BugGuide of a group of chrysalids, but they were raised in captivity. Locally, the caterpillars feed mainly on Chinese Elm and Willow.

Letter 8 – Mourning Cloak Chrysalis

 

chrysalis id
hi there I have 8 of these guys hanging off my porch. sorry the pictures are black and white if this is not enough I will take some more pictures in color. the caterpillar before it changed was black and spiky with a reddish dot on each segment and yellowish feet. the chrysalis is light brown.
thank you,
Heather in San Diego

Hi Heather,
We just posted a photo of the adult Mourning Cloak Butterfly, Nymphalis antiopa, today, so it is wonderful to have your Chrysalis photo to accompany it.

Letter 9 – Mourning Cloak Metamorphosis

 

Mourning Cloak Butterfly
Hi WTB,
I just wanted to share with you and all of us “bug-sleuths” my recent discovery. About a two months ago I began seeing thousands of little black turds on my back porch under my chinese elm tree. At first I was very concerned thinking that I may have an infested tree. I suspected the turds were non mammalian or avian due to the shape of the extrusion. They were not round, but slightly squared and short in length. My suspicions were proven correct when among the turds one morning were a dried up caterpillar, too emaciated to get a good identification. The identification came about a week later when the caterpillars in my tree were on the move. I spotted ten or so caterpillars that were spiny, charcoal grey with red markings that were slightly diamond shape along the back (see the picture).

They had apparently dropped from the tree and were making their way up the walls of my house in order to find a place to chrysalize. Once they found their chosen place, they attached themselves and spun a light grey chrysalis. One thing I noticed was that part of the caterpillar actually became discarded in the process. I could not tell if the head or the tail of the caterpillar lost out. Nonetheless, nature took its course, and one morning, I had the wonderful opportunity to photograph one of the butterflies just born, drying its wings in the sun. While it is not a strikingly colorful specimen, it is nonetheless a wonderful part of my backyard environment. Enjoy.
Bob K
Sunny San Diego, CA

Hi Bob,
What a wonderful account of Mourning Cloak metamorphosis. During each stage of metamorphosis, the individual loses its exoskeleton, hence the discarded chrysalis skin in the background of your butterfly image. Mourning Cloaks are native to California, and before the introduction of the Chinese Elm, a favorite host tree, they fed on riparian willows that grow near stream beds and rivers. This is a wide ranging species that is found throughout North America and Europe in the Northern hemisphere.

Letter 10 – Butterfly Chrysalis, possibly Mourning Cloak

 

Odd Snail looking Bug
April 25, 2010
I found this bug stuck to the handle on one of my shopping bags in my garage. When I accidently grabbed it blood squirted everywhere. It also has some type of grip on the bag handle. It is about a inch long and 1/4 inch thick.
Bobby Conway
Collierville, TN (Memphis)

Butterfly Chrysalis: Probably Mourning Cloak

Hi Bobby,
This is the chrysalis of a Brushfooted Butterfly in the family Nymphalidae.  While we cannot be certain of the exact identity, we suspect it is a Mourning Cloak Chrysalis which you may find pictured on BugGuide.  The caterpillars of the Mourning Cloak are frequently found on willow, poplar or elm trees, and the caterpillars may travel some distance to find a spot suitable for metamorphosis.

Wow, there it is, thanks so much for the clarification.  Nice to know what I dealt with.
Have a great week
Bobby

Letter 11 – Mourning Cloak Chrysalides

 

Subject: What are these
Location: Burkburnett, TX
April 28, 2014 9:43 pm
I have 5 of these hanging in my back patio. Can you tell me what they are?
Signature: Curious in Texas

Mourning Cloak Chrysalides
Mourning Cloak Chrysalides

Dear Curious in Texas,
Do you have an elm or willow tree nearby?  These are the Pupae or Chrysalides of Mourning Cloak Butterflies.  The spiny caterpillars feed on the leaves of elm and willow as well as a few other tree species.  They often migrate away from the food source to begin the metamorphosis process.  Adult Mourning Cloak butterflies are quite pretty with velvety dark wings, cream wing edges and bright blue spots.

Letter 12 – Mourning Cloak Caterpillar and Chrysalis

 

Subject: Consultation
Location: Whitehorse, Yukon
July 18, 2016 8:41 pm
Hi there,
Wondering if you might be able to help me identify this beauty. Maybe some kind of tent caterpillar? I found a bunch of them eating what I believe are the leaves of the trembling aspen. It just pupated and I would love to know the species so I can know approximately how long it will remain in the pupal stage.
So much appreciated!
Signature: Nicole

Mourning Cloak Caterpillar
Mourning Cloak Caterpillar

Dear Nicole,
These are most certainly NOT going to become Tent Caterpillar Moths, though we understand why you are mistaken.  The Caterpillar and Chrysalis will both eventually metamorphose into lovely Mourning Cloak Butterflies.  According to BugGuide:  “Eggs are laid in groups circling twigs of the host plant. Caterpillars live in a communal web and feed together on young leaves, then pupate and emerge as adults in June or July. After feeding briefly, the adults estivate until fall, when they re-emerge to feed and store energy for hibernation. Some adults migrate south in the fall.”  Because they hibernate as adults, Mourning Cloaks are among the longest lived butterflies and they are among the first to appear in the spring, sometimes flying on warm sunny days while there is still snow on the ground.  Mourning Cloaks are somewhat unusual among butterflies too in that they rarely visit flowers for nectar, instead feeding on tree sap and overly ripe fruit, two good natural sources for sugary fluids that they need for sustenance.  Mourning Cloaks have a large range including most of the northern hemisphere.  In England, the butterfly is called the Camberwell Beauty.

Mourning Cloak Chrysalis
Mourning Cloak Chrysalis

Authors

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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2 thoughts on “Mourning Cloak Butterfly: All You Need to Know in a Nutshell”

  1. This is wonderful to see! Mourning cloaks are my very favorite butterfly, but I almost never see them. However, I got my first sighting of one in several years just a few days ago! They seem to have no fear–just like the one above, mine kept circling back to flutter right in my face.

    Reply

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