Red Spotted Purple Butterfly Life Cycle: A Fascinating Journey Explored

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The red-spotted purple butterfly, scientifically known as Limenitis arthemis astyanax, is a stunning forest species found throughout North America. Known for its blue to blue-green iridescent upper side and dark brown under side, this eye-catching creature not only adds beauty to its surroundings, but also plays a vital role in its ecosystem 1.

Understanding the life cycle of the red-spotted purple butterfly offers insight into the delicate balance of nature and the various stages this butterfly goes through in its transformation. From egg to adult, each phase in the life cycle is unique and essential for the survival and reproduction of the species. Get ready to embark on a fascinating journey through the life of this enchanting insect.

Red Spotted Purple Butterfly Basics

Scientific Classification

The Red Spotted Purple butterfly, also known as Limenitis arthemis, belongs to the following classification:

  • Family: Nymphalidae
  • Subfamily: Limenitidinae
  • Genus: Limenitis

Physical Characteristics

  • Black color with red spots
  • Wingspan: 3 to 3.5 inches

For a friendly comparison between the Red Spotted Purple butterfly and a similar species, see the table below.

Feature Red Spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) Similar Species
Color Black with red spots Black
Size 3 to 3.5 inches wingspan 3 to 4 inches wingspan

The Red Spotted Purple butterfly showcases unique physical characteristics like red spots on its black wings, differentiating it from other butterflies within its family.

Life Cycle


The life cycle of the red-spotted purple butterfly begins with the female laying eggs on the leaves of their preferred host plants, such as black cherry, deerberry, and wild cherry. The eggs hatch within a week, revealing tiny larvae or caterpillars.


The caterpillars of the red-spotted purple butterfly have a unique bird-dropping mimic appearance, which serves as a defense mechanism against predators. They are voracious eaters and only feed on the host plants they were born on.

  • Preferred host plants:

    • Black cherry
    • Deerberry
    • Wild cherry


After a few weeks of growth, the caterpillar forms a chrysalis, entering the pupa stage. This stage can last from a few days to several weeks depending on the specific brood and environmental conditions. The transformation from caterpillar to adult butterfly happens within the chrysalis.

Adult Butterfly

The adult red-spotted purple butterfly is a visually striking species, known for its iridescent blue and deep red spots along the hind wings. The wingspan of this butterfly is typically between 3 to 3.5 inches.

Red-Spotted Purple Butterfly White Admiral
Iridescent blue with red spots on hind wings Iridescent blue with white band on hind wings
Mimics the appearance of the toxic viceroy butterfly White markings similar to red-spotted purple

Adult red-spotted purple butterflies feed primarily on nectar from flowers, but they are also known to be attracted to rotting fruit on the forest floor. Their natural habitat is forested areas in North America, particularly in states like Wisconsin and Virginia.

Habitat and Distribution

The Red-spotted Purple butterfly can be found in various woodland habitats throughout North America, particularly in the Eastern United States1. This species is not limited to the United States, as it also has a presence in Canada2.

Some typical habitats for the Red-spotted Purple are:

  • Woodlands
  • Woodland edges
  • Parks
  • Streamside areas

The Red-spotted Purple butterfly thrives in areas with ample host plants. These butterflies lay their eggs on the tips of their host plants’ leaves3. Host plants include:

  • Cottonwood
  • Willows
  • Aspens
  • Poplars
  • Hawthorn
Region Host Plants
Eastern United States Cottonwood, Poplars, Hawthorn
Northern United States Willows
Canada Aspens
Woodlands and Stream Edges Cottonwood, Willows, Aspens, Poplars, Hawthorn

Hybridization can occur within the Red-spotted Purple species due to its overlapping habitats with other butterfly species4. This process may impact the distribution patterns and host plant preferences of the butterfly.

In summary, the Red-spotted Purple butterfly is a North American species found in various woodland habitats. It relies on specific host plants, including cottonwood, willows, aspens, poplars, and hawthorn. Distribution patterns may be influenced by hybridization with other species.

Diet and Feeding

The Red-spotted Purple butterfly relies on various sources for nourishment. One primary source is flower nectar, but they also consume sap, dung, and even carrion.

Short on nectar? Don’t worry, these butterflies adapt and find other sources to fulfill their nutritional needs.


  • Sap can be obtained from damaged trees
  • Dung from animals such as deer found in the forest
  • Carrion includes decaying animals, providing them with necessary salts and nutrients

Some of the preferred plants for the Red-spotted Purple butterfly include:

  • Vaccinium stamineum L.
  • Carolina Willow
  • Prunus serotina Ehrh.

Plant Characteristics:

  • Vaccinium stamineum L., also known as Deerberry, is a small shrub with white, bell-shaped flowers followed by greenish-blue berries. They like moist and well-drained soils.
  • Carolina Willow is a deciduous, fast-growing shrub reaching up to 10-30 feet tall. It prefers wet soils and can tolerate occasional flooding.
  • Prunus serotina Ehrh., or Black Cherry, is a deciduous tree capable of growing up to 50-80 feet tall. It produces white flowers and dark purple fruits; it’s suitable for a range of growing conditions, including moist and dry soils.

Here’s a comparison of their preferences:

Feature Vaccinium stamineum L. Carolina Willow Prunus serotina Ehrh.
Soil preference Moist, well-drained Wet Moist to dry
Habitat Forest understory Wetlands Forests
Maximum height 6 feet 10-30 feet 50-80 feet

Having a variety of these plants in your garden might attract Red-spotted Purple butterflies, enhancing the beauty of your green space.

Mimicry and Evolution

The red-spotted purple butterfly is known for its mimicry abilities. It closely resembles the pipevine swallowtail, or Battus philenor, in appearance. This mimicry is an evolutionary strategy called Batesian mimicry, which allows the red-spotted purple to avoid predators by imitating a toxic species.

  • Mimicry: Red-spotted purple butterfly mimics pipevine swallowtail
  • Evolutionary strategy: Batesian mimicry to avoid predators

The red-spotted purple butterfly has a close relative known as the white admiral. They share the same scientific name, Limenitis arthemis, but differ in their distribution and color patterns.

  • White admiral: Close relative of red-spotted purple butterfly
  • Distribution: Different geographical areas

Prunus serotina, or wild black cherry, is an essential host plant for red-spotted purple butterflies. This plant’s distribution influences the range of the red-spotted purple.

  • Prunus serotina: Essential host plant
  • Influence: Affects the distribution of red-spotted purple butterflies
Species Mimicry Distribution Host Plant
Red-spotted Purple Mimics pipevine swallowtail Forests Prunus serotina
Pipevine Swallowtail Toxic, imitated by other species Broad range Various plants
White Admiral Not a mimic Northern regions Various host plants

In conclusion, the red-spotted purple butterfly is an excellent example of mimicry and evolution in action. Through Batesian mimicry and its connection to host plants and distribution, this butterfly showcases the fascinating interplay between species and their environments.

Additional Information

Flight Pattern

Red-spotted purple butterflies are known for their graceful flight with a distinctive gliding motion. They often fly close to the ground and are more active during sunny days. Their flight pattern allows them to navigate effectively through the forest and other natural habitats.

Territorial Disputes

  • Males of this species can be territorial, defending specific areas.
  • They frequently perch on trees or shrubs, chasing intruders away.

Male Butterflies

  • Only male red-spotted purple butterflies exhibit a behavior called “hilltopping.”
  • In hilltopping, males congregate on hilltops or other elevated areas to attract mates.

Pupa Stage

  • The pupa stage is an essential part of their life cycle, where they transform into adult butterflies.
  • Red-spotted purple butterflies have a camouflaged pupa, resembling a twig or dead leaf.


  • Photos of red-spotted purple butterflies showcase their stunning wing patterns and vibrant colors.
  • The upperside of their wings is blue to blue-green with iridescence, while the underside is dark brown1.
L. a. astyanax (Red-spotted Purple) L. a. arthemis (White Admiral)
Blue to blue-green upper wings Similar, but with a white band
No white band across wings Broad white band present
  • Both variants belong to the family Nymphalidae and genus Limenitis2.
  • Some similarities between the two include flight patterns and adult diet, which consists of tree sap, rotting fruit, and dung3.



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Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, 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


blue-copper butterfly?
Can you tell me what species this is? THANKS!

Hi Greg,
They say color is the most subjective element in art, and it is amusing that you describe this as a blue-copper butterfly. The actual common name is composed of two other colors, Red Spotted Purple. The species is Limenitis arthemis.

Letter 2 – Red Spotted Purple


Took this picture last summer in my back yard here in Northern Alabama. Only one like it I saw, and I’m an avid butterfly picture taker It didn’t stay for me to photograph for more than two seconds and it took off. Wonder if you can identify this beautiful creature for me…
Ellen Allen

Hi Ellen,
We know of more than one person who considers the Red Spotted Purple to be the most beautiful North American butterfly.

Letter 3 – Red Spotted Purple


Subject:  Black and blue butterfly
Geographic location of the bug:  Northern Lower Michigan
Date: 08/12/2018
Time: 10:24 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  This is a very friendly butterfly. We are camping mid August northern lower Michigan, in a small clearing in the middle of 100 acres of mixed forest. Poplar, birch, maple, pine and cedar among other underbrush species.
How you want your letter signed:  Prettpuddles

Red Spotted Purple

Dear Prettpuddles,
This gorgeous butterfly is a Red Spotted Purple.  Thanks for providing a list of plants in the area.  Poplar and birch are both caterpillar food plants for the Red Spotted Purple, a list that includes “A variety of deciduous trees: willows and poplars (Willow family), cherries, apples and pears (Rose family), birches (Birch family), oaks and beeches (Beech family), Basswood (Linden family) and others. Also recorded from currant and blueberry bushes” according to BugGuide.

Red Spotted Purple

Reader Emails


Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, 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 and Viceroy


Red Spotted PurpleSubject: Red Spotted Purple on Butterfly Bush
Geographic location of the bug:  Campbell, Ohio
Date: 07/20/2022
Time: 11:40 AM EDT
Gentle Readers,
Daniel is thrilled to be spending an entire summer in the yard where he grew up for the first time since the late 1970s, and he is well aware of changes that have occurred in that time.  Species that were once quite common are now quite scarce and species that were once very rare are being sighted with frequency.  Daniel first spotted what he believed to be a Red Spotted Purple in early May but he did not make a sighting with certainty until July 17 when he recorded a sighting in the Butterflies & Skippers of Ohio Field Guide on July 17.  Two days later he got an excellent image of what many consider to be the most beautiful North American butterfly nectaring from a Butterfly Bush that Daniel purchased and planted in July 2020, one of the first plants he introduced to the garden that he inherited.

Red Spotted Purple
Red Spotted Purple

Daniel suspects that an Albus Poplar tree that was planted after Daniel moved away in 1979 and that grew to tremendous height before it fell in a May wind storm might be the food source for the caterpillars of the Red Spotted Purple as the Viceroys that are also present in the garden.  Though they are visually quite different, the Red Spotted Purple and the Viceroy are members of the same genus.



  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. 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.

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