Red Spotted Purple Butterfly: All You Need to Know – A Quick Guide

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The Red-spotted Purple Butterfly is a fascinating and visually stunning creature, commonly found across North America. Boasting a breath-taking iridescent blue to blue-green sheen on their wings, these butterflies are quite a sight to behold. Their underside, on the other hand, features a unique dark brown color, complemented by red-orange bars and spots near the base of their wings (source).

Not only are these butterflies captivating in appearance, but they also exhibit intriguing behaviors. For instance, male Red-spotted Purple Butterflies have a unique method of finding females, where they perch around 3 feet above the ground (source). Additionally, their caterpillars showcase exceptional camouflage, as they closely resemble bird droppings, which effectively deters predators.

Physical Description and Identification

Size and Wingspan

Color Pattern and Variations

  • These butterflies exhibit a mainly blue or blue-green iridescent sheen on their upper side, especially on the outer part of the hindwing.
  • Some forms have a white band running across the middle of the wings, sometimes called “white admirals.”

Dorsal View and Ventral Side

  • On the dorsal (upper) side, two red-orange bars can be found near the base of the forewing’s leading edge, and on the ventral (lower) side, the hindwing showcases three red-orange spots near its base.
  • The ventral side is typically dark brown in color, with small, scattered white spots.

Comparison Table: Dorsal View vs Ventral Side

Feature Dorsal View Ventral Side
Color Iridescent blue/green Dark brown
Red-orange spots 2 bars on forewing 3 spots on hindwing
White spots Not prominent Small, scattered

Overall, the red-spotted purple butterfly is a visually striking species, with its iridescent sheen, unique color patterns, and distinctive red-orange spots.

Life Cycle and Behavior

Eggs and Caterpillars

The life cycle of the Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax) begins when the female lays her eggs. These eggs, usually laid on the leaves of host plants, will hatch within about 6-14 days, revealing the green caterpillars. The caterpillars resemble pipevine swallowtail caterpillars, which helps protect them from predators due to the pipevine swallowtail’s unpalatable taste.

Caterpillar features:

  • Green with white and brown markings
  • Resemble Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars

Examples of host plants for caterpillar stage:

  • Willow
  • Cherry
  • Poplar

Chrysalis and Pupa

After the caterpillar stage, Red-spotted Purple butterflies enter the chrysalis stage, which lasts for around two weeks. In this stage, they transform into a pupa inside the chrysalis. The chrysalis is usually brown or green and well-camouflaged in their woodland habitat.

Pupa features:

  • Brown or green color
  • Camouflaged in a woodland setting

Adult Diet and Preferences

When Red-spotted Purple butterflies emerge as adults, they feed on a variety of substances. Their diet mainly consists of tree sap, rotting fruit, and even animal dung. Due to their preference for woodland habitats, they are often found near trees and plants that provide their food sources.

In comparison to other butterflies, such as the White Admiral (Limenitis arthemis arthemis), Red-spotted Purple adults are more likely to be found in the shadows of trees and shrubs. The table below compares the habitats and diets of the Red-spotted Purple and White Admiral butterflies.

Feature Red-Spotted Purple White Admiral
Habitat Woodland Woodland
Preferred Light Shade Sunlight
Primary Diet Tree sap, rotting fruit, animal dung Tree sap, nectar

These amazing creatures produce two broods per year, ensuring their population continues to thrive in their North American habitat.

Habitat and Distribution

Geographical Range

The Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax) is a widely distributed North American butterfly, with its habitat stretching from Alaska and Canada to Florida and the Eastern United States. They are also present in the Great Lakes region and as far southwest as eastern Texas.

Woodlands and Forest Edges

This butterfly species thrives in:

  • North American woodlands
  • Forest edges near streams
  • Places with a presence of their host plants

The larval host plants include:

  • Willows
  • Cottonwoods
  • Aspens
  • Poplars
  • Wild cherries
  • Hawthorn

Adult Red-spotted Purples feed on:

  • Tree sap
  • Honeydew
  • Rotting fruit
  • Occasionally, flowers

Adaptation to Urban Areas

Surprisingly, these butterflies are quite adaptable to urban areas like parks, gardens, and suburbs. Some factors contributing to their successful urban adaptation are:

  • Availability of host plants in gardens and parks
  • A preference for a wider variety of flowering plants
  • Adaptability to different types of woodlands

Comparison of Red-spotted Purple Butterfly and White Admiral Butterfly

Features Red-spotted Purple White Admiral
Distribution Eastern United States, Alaska, Canada, Great Lakes region, southwest to eastern Texas Eastern United States, Canada
Wingspan 2.5 – 4 inches 2.75 – 4 inches
Wing Color Iridescent blue/black with red spots Black with a white band running across wings
Habitat Woodlands, forest edges, urban areas Woodlands, forest edges, near water
Larval Host Plants Willows, cottonwoods, aspens, poplars, wild cherries, hawthorn Willows, poplars, birch, aspens

In summary, the Red-spotted Purple is a versatile and adaptable butterfly species that can be found across a wide geographic range, from woodlands and forest edges to urban environments. They rely on host plants for their survival and are closely related to White Admirals, displaying similar characteristics.

Breeding and Host Plants

Common Host Plants

The Red-Spotted Purple Butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax) typically lays eggs on the tips of host leaves. Some common host plants for these butterflies are:

  • Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina)
  • Deerberry (Vaccinius)
  • Black Cherry
  • Apple

These plants provide a suitable environment for the butterfly larvae to grow and develop into adult butterflies.

Fruit Preferences

Adult Red-Spotted Purple Butterflies are known to feed on the nectar of various fruits, including:

  • Overripe bananas
  • Citrus fruits
  • Apples

They’re also attracted to other sources of nutrition, like mud puddles and bird droppings.

Interaction with Other Species

The Red-Spotted Purple Butterfly has an interesting relationship with the Pipevine Swallowtail. Their appearance mimics the Pipevine Swallowtail, which is an example of the evolution of mimicry in the Lepidoptera family.

Comparison Table: Red-Spotted Purple Butterfly vs. Pipevine Swallowtail

Feature Red-Spotted Purple Butterfly Pipevine Swallowtail
Family Brush-footed Butterflies Swallowtails
Mimicry Yes No
Host Plants Wild Cherry, Apple Pipevine
Typical habitat Forests Forests, meadows, and gardens

Hybridization

Another intriguing aspect of the Red-Spotted Purple Butterfly is its ability to hybridize with the White Admiral Butterfly (Limenitis arthemis arthemis). Their hybrid offspring are healthy and fertile, with a broader white band across the wings.

Broods

Red-Spotted Purple Butterflies typically have two broods in a single season. The eggs take around 6-14 days to hatch, and the adult butterfly lifespan can vary depending on various factors.

Predators and Mimicry

Common Predators

The Red Spotted Purple Butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax) faces several predators, such as birds and spiders, which often prey on them. Some of the common predators include:

  • Swallowtail birds
  • Parasitic wasps
  • Praying mantises

Mimicry Strategies

The Red Spotted Purple Butterfly uses mimicry strategies to avoid its predators. One such strategy is mimicking the appearance of the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly. This mimicry helps deter predators, as the Pipevine Swallowtail is known to be toxic. Some characteristics of their mimicry include:

  • Dark, iridescent wings
  • Similar markings and color patterns

Red Spotted Purple Butterfly typically inhabits forest edges, where it blends in with its surroundings. It shares a close resemblance with another subspecies, the Limenitis arthemis arthemis (White Admiral).

Here is a comparison table:

Feature Red Spotted Purple Butterfly Pipevine Swallowtail White Admiral
Wings Dark, iridescent Dark, iridescent White and black
Habitat Forest edges Mixed forests Mixed woodlands

While the Red Spotted Purple Butterfly does not possess any toxins, its mimicry successfully deters predators by imitating the toxic Pipevine Swallowtail appearance.

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 – Red Spotted Purple

 

Subject: black butterfly
Location: Londonderry, New Hampshire
September 5, 2012 5:11 pm
What kind of a butterfly is this?
The wings are very tattered but it was still a thrill to see this beautiful butterfly today.
Signature: Laura

Red Spotted Purple

Dear Laura,
This is a very tattered Red Spotted Purple, and we hope you eventually have the opportunity to see and photograph a more pristine individual as they are easily contenders for the loveliest North American butterflies.

Thank you for identifying this butterfly for me.  I’d love to see a pristine one and I hope to see one this year.  This is the first time I can recall ever seeing one.

Letter 2 – Red Spotted Purple

 

Subject: Butterfly
Location: Indiana
July 19, 2013 2:03 pm
I just spotted the butterfly on my bush..I have not seen one like this before, as it is so gorgeous.. I would love to know what kind it is please..
Signature: Tonya

Red Spotted Purple
Red Spotted Purple

Hi Tonya,
This lovely butterfly is a Red Spotted Purple, and several years ago, we considered it to be a frontrunner in the most beautiful North American butterfly contest.

Red Spotted Purple
Red Spotted Purple

Letter 3 – Red Spotted Purple

 

Subject: Red-Spotted Purple AND Western White Admiral!
Location: Naperville, IL; Grand Teton, WY
August 19, 2013 8:57 pm
Dear Daniel~
I know you dislike it when folks send photos of two different species in one submission, but as these are actually two different *sub*species, and one led me to the other, in effect, maybe you’ll forgive me?
I was so happy this morning because I saw a flash of what I initially thought was my garden-variety Black Swallowtail butterfly (I think we don’t have Pipevine Swallowtails around here) when I noted the lack of distinctive Swallowtail hindwings. I have never seen a Red-Spotted Purple in my yard before, so you can imagine how excited I was.
Then, later on this evening in the course of finding the scientific name for the Red-Spotted Purple, I discovered that a butterfly I photographed (badly, I might add, but it was flitting around so quickly) last week in Grand Teton National Park and was struggling to identify was none other than a Western White Admiral, a different form or subspecies of Limenitis arthemis, my beloved Red_Spotted Purple.
How thrilling!
I hope you have a wonderful evening!
Signature: Dori Eldridge

Red Spotted Purple
Red Spotted Purple

Hi Dori,
Your photos of the Red Spotted Purple are lovely and we are thrilled that you have views of both the dorsal and ventral surface.  We saw some in Ohio in June, but alas, we did not have a camera, which is one of the reasons we traveled with a camera in August.  Your rationale for submitting the two sightings together makes perfect sense, and in the past we would not have had an issue creating a single posting since both are classified as Brush Footed Butterflies, but with our new mapping feature, we can only have one location per posting, so we are dividing your photos and posting the content of the email twice so the Admiral can have its own location memorialized.  Thanks again for your submission.

Red Spotted Purple
Red Spotted Purple

 

Letter 4 – Red Spotted Purple

 

Subject: Butterfly
Location: Morgantown, wv
July 16, 2014 4:47 am
This butterfly had me awestruck due to its beauty and how it would not leave. My son and I were having a phone conversation over some serious issues and it was like God was speaking thru nature to say he would be faithful as he also provides for this beautiful butterfly. I took May photos with my iPad and I could get very close.
Signature: What’s that bug

Red Spotted Purple
Red Spotted Purple

Your butterfly is a Red Spotted Purple.  Several years ago we proposed that the Red Spotted Purple might be the most beautiful North American butterfly, though your image does not really do it justice.

Letter 5 – Red Spotted Purple

 

Subject: Likely swallowtail butterfly
Location: Texas? Unknown
July 20, 2015 5:01 pm
Hello!
My niece recently asked me about a specimen she was given by another family who likely collected it in Texas or Arkansas. It looks like a swallowtail, but the double row along the wing margins (especially clear on hind wings) has me stumped. Thought maybe a dark form, but I am totally in the dark!
Signature: Puzzled Auntie

Red Spotted Purple
Red Spotted Purple

Dear Puzzled Auntie,
Your confusion is understandable.  The lovely Red Spotted Purple is thought to mimic the presumably distasteful Pipevine Swallowtail for protection.

Letter 6 – Red Spotted Purple

 

Subject: Butterefly ID
Location: Tnorthern Illinois
July 25, 2015 8:07 am
Hi
I saw this beauty in my yard. They were around in late July for a week. Any idea what it is and where it lives and feeds?
Signature: Geo

Red Spotted Purple
Red Spotted Purple

Hi Geo,
In the opinion of the editorial staff of What’s That Bug?, the Red Spotted Purple, like the one in your image, is one of the most beautiful North American butterflies.

Thanks so much Daniel,
I am sitting on my patio and it just just flew by again. Now I know what to call it.
Have a nice day.
P.s. Blue jay baby just walked by. What a day.

Letter 7 – Red Spotted Purple

 

Subject:  Gorgeous Red Spotted Purple Butterfly
Geographic location of the bug:  High Springs, Fl.
Date: 07/22/2018
Time: 10:46 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Hi big team.  When I lived in Orlando I was a little too far south to see these beauties and I told my husband that it was my dream to one day see a red spotted purple.  Since we moved to north central Florida I now see them occasionally and they are quite photogenic.  We bought a wild cherry tree and even raised a couple of caterpillars into adulthood.  Here’s a photo of my latest sighting.  Thank you for your time and efforts so that nature lovers like myself can enjoy this site.
How you want your letter signed:  Elizabeth (a.k.a . Butterfly Girl)

Red Spotted Purple

Dear Elizabeth,
The Red Spotted Purple is most definitely one of the most beautiful North American butterflies.  Providing habitat and larval foods is a very good strategy for attracting butterflies, and we are happy to hear your wild cherry tree is luring Red Spotted Purples for you.  Because of your habitat creating efforts, we are tagging this submission with the Bug Humanitarian Award.

I am honored.  I really enjoy every effort to help nature thrive. Thank you.
Elizabeth

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: Red Spotted Purple

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Howard Lampman
    May 5, 2018 8:40 pm

    I’m very interested in all of God’s creations!! Add me to your contact list!!

    Reply

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