Tawny Emperor: All You Need to Know in a Nutshell

folder_openInsecta, Lepidoptera
comment4 Comments

The Tawny Emperor (Asterocampa clyton) is a fascinating butterfly species that you might encounter in various regions across the United States. They are known for their unique rust-colored wings and interesting life cycle. As you explore this species, you’ll uncover why they are a popular sight for butterfly enthusiasts everywhere.

Their preferred habitats include cities, densely wooded areas, dry woods, fencerows, open woods, and parks. They are commonly found from southern New England to Florida, and west to North Dakota and southern Arizona. The Tawny Emperor has distinguishing features such as chestnut brown coloring on the upperside of their wings, with two brown bars and no white spots. If you’re lucky enough to come across this butterfly, you may notice their remarkable appearance.

One important aspect of the Tawny Emperor’s life cycle is its relationship with its host plants, like the hackberry tree. They rely on the leaves and sap of these tree species for their survival as caterpillars. In turn, adult Tawny Emperors feed on a variety of sources, such as carrion, dung, rotting fruit, and tree sap, unlike some other butterfly species that primarily visit flowers.

Identification of Tawny Emperor

Appearance and Size

The Tawny Emperor (Asterocampa clyton) is a medium-sized butterfly with a wing span of 1¾ – 2¾ inches (4.2 – 7 cm). To identify this butterfly, you need to look for some specific features:

  • The upperside of the wings is chestnut brown
  • The forewing has two brown bars, and no white spots
  • There are no eyespots near the outer margin
  • The hindwing uppersides are orange with black spots1

These characteristics make it easier to distinguish the Tawny Emperor from some similar species, such as the Hackberry Emperor, which has a more tan color and different markings2.

Abundance and Locations

Tawny Emperors can be found from southern New England to Florida, and west to North Dakota and southern Arizona3. They are more common in northern and central Florida due to the presence of their host plants, but they are less abundant in southern Florida3.

Their preferred habitat includes:

  • Deciduous woodlands that support hackberry trees
  • Dry woods
  • Fencerows
  • Open woods
  • Parks4

Keep in mind, Tawny Emperors are usually found in the company of Hackberry Emperors, but they tend to be less common. Their flight occurs from spring through fall5.

Scientific Classification

Taxonomy and Scientific Name

The Tawny Emperor butterfly belongs to the kingdom Animalia, phylum Arthropoda, class Insecta, order Lepidoptera, family Nymphalidae, genus Asterocampa, and species Asterocampa clyton. You might also come across another related species, Asterocampa celtis, which is known as the Hackberry Emperor butterfly. Both butterflies are quite similar, but the Tawny Emperor is generally more orangish-brown in color.

Some features of the Tawny Emperor that may help you recognize it include:

  • Orange and brown coloration
  • Mottled brown pattern on the underside of the wings
  • Small eyespots on the lower wings
  • Distinctive wing shape with a slightly jagged edge

When observing Tawny Emperors, you’ll often find them basking in the sunlight or feeding on tree sap, rotting fruit, and other sources of nutrients. Keep in mind that they’re not frequent visitors to flowers, so you’re more likely to spot them around trees and wooded areas.

In summary, understanding the scientific classification of the Tawny Emperor butterfly can enhance your knowledge and appreciation for this majestic creature. Keep an eye out for this fascinating insect while exploring natural habitats and observe their unique behavior and captivating appearance.

Life Cycle of Tawny Emperor

Stages from Larvae to Adult

The life cycle of the Tawny Emperor butterfly (Asterocampa clyton) comprises four main stages: eggs, larvae (caterpillars), pupae, and adults. Here’s a brief overview of each stage:

Eggs: The Tawny Emperor butterfly starts its life as a small, green egg, usually laid on the host plants, such as hackberry trees. These eggs are the beginning of the fascinating journey to become a beautiful butterfly.

Larvae (Caterpillars): After hatching, the larvae emerge as caterpillars, which begin feeding on the leaves of their host plants. During this stage, they focus on eating and growing. The caterpillars will molt several times, shedding their old skin to accommodate their increasing size.

Pupae: Once the caterpillars have reached a certain size, they will enter the pupal stage. During this time, they form a protective shell called a chrysalis, where they undergo a transformation into their adult form. This process is known as metamorphosis.

Adults: When the transformation is complete, the adult Tawny Emperor butterfly emerges from the chrysalis. The fully-grown butterfly has a wingspan of 1.6 to 2.75 inches and a chestnut brown color, easily distinguishable by the two brown bars on its forewing.

Remember, the number of generations per year for the Tawny Emperor varies depending on location. In the northern United States, there is usually just one generation, whereas in areas like Florida and southern Louisiana, you can expect up to three generations.

And there you have it! The life cycle of the Tawny Emperor butterfly is a fascinating journey from a small egg to a stunning adult. By understanding this process, you can better appreciate these beautiful creatures and their place in nature.

Habitat and Distribution

Resident Locations and Sightings

The Tawny Emperor butterfly (Asterocampa clyton) can be found across a wide range in North America, particularly in the eastern United States. Its distribution stretches from southern New England down to Florida, and westward to North Dakota and southern Arizona1.

These butterflies prefer diverse habitats such as woodlands, parks, and even residential yards. In Texas, for example, it is common to spot Tawny Emperors in county parks or resting among your garden plants. They tend to reside in areas with their host plant, the hackberry tree, which is essential for their larval feeding and growth2.

In the northern regions, such as Washington, sightings of this butterfly species may be less frequent. However, with the appropriate host plants present, Tawny Emperors could potentially increase their territory further north.

To increase your likelihood of encountering a Tawny Emperor in your area, consider planting hackberry trees in your yard or checking nearby parks and woodlands with abundant hackberry trees. Remember to stay patient and keep your eyes peeled for their distinct chestnut brown coloring with no white spots3.

Feeding Preferences

Food Plants and Other Sources

The Tawny Emperor, a butterfly species closely related to the Hackberry Emperor, primarily feeds on Hackberry trees as caterpillars. The caterpillars of both Emperors share some similar food sources:

  • Hackberries: As their main food plants, both the Tawny Emperor and Hackberry Emperor caterpillars feed on the leaves of hackberry trees.

As Tawny Emperor butterflies, their feeding preferences slightly change compared to their caterpillar stage. For example, they do not feed on nectar from flowers like many other butterflies. Instead, they are attracted to:

  • Sap: The sap from trees serves as a primary food source for adult Tawny Emperors.
  • Dung: An unusual dietary choice, but Tawny Emperor butterflies may also feed on dung for nutrients.
  • Carrion: They might occasionally feed on carrion, which provides essential minerals and nutrients.
  • Berries: Tawny Emperors could also be found on overripe berries.

Comparing Tawny Emperor and Hackberry Emperor feeding preferences:

Food Source Tawny Emperor Hackberry Emperor
Hackberry Trees Preferred as caterpillar Preferred as caterpillar
Sap Yes Yes
Dung Yes Yes
Carrion Occasional Occasional
Berries Occasional Rare
Nectar Not Preferred Preferred

In summary, as caterpillars, the Tawny Emperor and Hackberry Emperor feed primarily on hackberry trees. As adult butterflies, the Tawny Emperor does not prefer nectar, which sets them apart from many other butterfly species, including the Hackberry Emperor. Instead, they opt for tree sap, dung, and other alternative food sources. Knowing these feeding preferences can help you identify and understand the Tawny Emperor’s behavior in its natural habitat.

Behavior and Adaptations

The Tawny Emperor is known for its unique behavior and adaptations that have evolved to enhance its survival in its natural habitat. Let’s explore some key aspects of this fascinating butterfly.

The Tawny Emperor has a distinctive way of moving about due to its long, slender tails. These tails serve as a decoy, drawing the attention of predators away from the butterfly’s vital head area. As a result, the Tawny Emperor can escape danger with minimal damage.

Their remarkable ability to blend into their surroundings is another remarkable adaptation. The butterfly’s wing patterns and colors provide excellent camouflage, ensuring they are not easily spotted by predators.

The Tawny Emperor is quite particular when it comes to their host plants. They rely on hackberry trees as exclusive host plants, where they lay their eggs and the caterpillars feed on the leaves to grow.

Some interesting characteristics of the Tawny Emperor include:

  • Slender tails
  • Camouflaging wing patterns
  • Preference for hackberry trees as host plants

To further understand their behavior, let’s look at a comparison table of their active behaviors and the seasonality of these behaviors:

Behavior Active Time Season
Mating Morning, Afternoon Spring, Summer
Feeding Morning, Afternoon Spring, Summer, Fall
Egg-laying Morning, Afternoon Spring, Summer

In conclusion, the Tawny Emperor’s unique behaviors and adaptations make it a fascinating creature to study. From their slender tails to their strong preference for hackberry trees, these butterflies have evolved to thrive in their environment. So next time you come across a Tawny Emperor, take a moment to appreciate its incredible adaptations and behaviors.

Footnotes

  1. Tawny Emperor – Alabama Butterfly Atlas 2

  2. Tawny Emperor | Missouri Department of Conservation 2

  3. Tawny Emperor Butterfly – Asterocampa clyton (Boisduval & LeConte) 2 3

  4. Tawny Emperor | Department of Horticulture – University of Kentucky

  5. PDF Tawny Emperor ID Slides – University of South Florida

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 – Tawny Emperor

 

Subject: Thirsty Butterfly, maybe an Emperor?
Location: Coryell County, Texas
October 16, 2016 3:07 pm
You identified some Emperors for me several years ago, thank you.
This butterfly landed right at my feet as I watered a hanging basket. It may be another Tawny Emperor. This one has a dark mark, though, perhaps a scent spot?
Thank you!
Signature: Ellen

Emperor Butterfly
Emperor Butterfly
Emperor Butterfly
Emperor Butterfly

Subject: Emperor Butterfly? Part II
Location: Coryell County, TX
October 16, 2016 3:25 pm
Hi, these photos are from Oct. 11, and show what I think is another Emperor.
Signature: Ellen

Emperor Butterfly
Emperor Butterfly

Dear Ellen,
Both the Tawny Emperor and the Hackberry Emperor have numerous subspecies, but we believe all your individuals are Tawny Emperors,
Asterocampa clyton, which are pictured on BugGuide.  Three subspecies are found in Texas, according to BugGuide, but there is no indication on how to distinguish them from one another.  Because our duties as an educator are taking us away from the office, we will be post-dating this submission to go live during our absence.

Thank you so much, and best wishes to you both. Just discovered a tarantula strolling across the yard… ? Will submit some photos quickly. Take care, and thank you again!

Letter 2 – Tawny Emperors

 

Subject: More Emperor Butterflies
Location: Coryell County, Texas
October 7, 2013 1:46 pm
The butterflies are thick in our neighbor’s yard. Her hedge and trees must be delicious to them. She kindly said I can take as many photos as I’d like. 🙂
Thankfully for them, these butterflies have escaped the birds so far.
I believe these are the same species of Emperor, perhaps Tawny Emperor, if not the same individual?
Thank you!
Signature: Ellen

Emperor
Tawny Emperor

Hi Ellen,
This latest batch of photos is quite exceptional.  These are perfect specimens, unlike the traumatized individuals you sent in the past few days.  Tell us, do you get Emperors every year or is this a significant event?  We agree that this appears to be a Tawny Emperor.  According to BugGuide:  “Similar to Hackberry Emperor, but rusty-brown above, darker below. Has small irridescent patches instead of eyespots below.”

Emperor
Tawny Emperor

 

Letter 3 – Tawny Emperor

 

Tawny Emporer, or should I say hitchiker? lol.
September 28, 2009
Hey bugman,
I thought I would share this photo with ya’ll of a tawny emporer that tried to hitch a ride on my mom’s backpack strap. We had been to the IJAMS (pronounced Iams) Nature Center in Knoxville, Tennessee all morning (we live about 20 minutes away) and were packing up to leave when my mom suddenly said, “Oh, look!” and I look and there was this lovely butterfly on her backpack strap. It was very cooperative for photos except that it would not open its wings. It was identified by Bob Barber on bugguide. I hope you enjoy the photo, and as always I cannot thank you enough for having such an awesome website!!!
Blessings,
Michael Davis
Knoxville, Tennessee

Tawny Emperor
Tawny Emperor

Hi Michael,
Thanks so much for contributing your wonderful Tawny Emperor image to our site.

Letter 4 – Tawny Emperor

 

Moth or Butterfly
Location: Delaware, Ohio 43015
September 29, 2011 5:51 pm
Hello! I have seen this creature before but I can not find any info on it anywhere. I think it’s a moth, but I am not sure. This picture was taken 8/4/2011 in Delaware, Ohio. It was about and inch or so long from wingtip to wingtip. She is lovely and I would like to know the genus and species.
Thank you,
Signature: Heidi Lange-Herzog

I have confirmed it’s a butterfly and not a moth.  I’m sure you didn’t need me to tell you that though.  Thank you.  Heidi

Tawny Emperor

Hi Heidi,
Though you indicated you have confirmed that this is a butterfly, you did not indicate if you learned the species.  This appears to us to be a Tawny Emperor,
Asterocampa clyton, based on this photo posted to BugGuide

Letter 5 – Tawny Emperor

 

Subject: Butterfly?
Location: Nashville, Tennessee
September 8, 2014 10:07 am
It has the little balls at the end of the antenna and did flutter its wings open and closed slowly when it landed. I can’t tell what species or name for the butterfly….or perhaps it is a moth!
Signature: Lauren

Tawny Emperor
Tawny Emperor

Dear Lauren,
This is a beautiful Tawny Emperor butterfly, and its wings are so perfect and pristine, we would almost guess that you might have observed it on its maiden flight.  BugGuide pictures four subspecies of Tawny Emperors, and we believe your individual looks most like
Asterocampa clyton clyton as pictured on BugGuide.  There are some nice images on The Butterflies and Moths of North America where this account is provided of the “Life History: Males perch on trees in full sun to watch for females. Eggs are laid in large groups of 200-500 on bark or the underside of mature leaves of host plants. Caterpillars eat leaves and young ones feed gregariously. Third-stage caterpillars hibernate in groups of about 10 inside a dead curled leaf.”  We think your photo with the foreshortened perspective on the perfect wings is quite unique among images we have seen online.

Letter 6 – Tawny Emperor

 

Subject: Butt-High Butterfly
Location: Memphis, TN
August 10, 2017 9:55 am
Sorry to bother you again so soon, but I can’t ID this butterfly. It doesn’t quite match up with any of the orange and black butterfly images I’ve found. Most of those show white markings and/or less “raggedy” wing edges. I think the wingspan was 1.5-2″?
It was standing in the shadier part of our driveway not long after sunrise with its head and foreparts crouched down and its hindparts raised. The abdomen was curled so that its tip was vertical. Any idea why?
Thanks so much for this site.
Signature: Laurel

Tawny Emperor

Dear Laurel,
This is a Tawny Emperor,
Asterocampa clyton, which we identified on BugGuide, and it appears to be dead.  The position of its antennae is not something we would expect on a living butterfly.  According to BugGuide:  “Adults take fluid from dung, rotting fruit, carrion. Like the Hackberry Emperor, this butterfly is ‘friendly’, and likes to perch on sweaty humans.”

Letter 7 – Tawny Emperor

 

Tawny Emperor – the end of the saga
Hi Lisa Anne and Daniel,
After a longer break, I want to keep my promise and send the last pictures of the Tawny Emperor (Asterocampa clyton) to you. They were a bit difficult to take, because the pharate pupal stage always appeared early in the morning. The pupa is a female, while the butterfly on the pictures is a male.

I want to add a little story here: In the beginning of June I went at night with a flashlight into the forest nearby my house and checked on approximately 10 trees for Asterocampa caterpillars. I found nearly 200 caterpillars in total of both species (celtis and clyton), sitting and eating on the underside of hackberry leafes. It was just amazing how many they were. If you try to find the sister species (Apatura iris or Apatura ilia) in Europe, you can consider yourself lucky to find one caterpillar in a year. OK, have a great time, and I will keep you updated when I breed new exciting species.
Best wishes,
Thomas
Thomas Werner, PhD
Madison, WI

Hi again Thomas,
Thank you so much for completing the saga of the Tawny Emperor. We eagerly await next spring to see what new species you will send our way.

Letter 8 – Tawny Emperor Metamorphosis

 

Tawny Emperor – Asterocampa clyton
Hi again,
Here comes one of the promised picture series of the Tawny Emperor (Asterocampa clyton). The caterpillars of this species hibernate on twigs in the second instar. I found caterpillars right after their hibernation in the beginning and middle of May in Madison/Wisconsin, mainly on the underside of Hackberry leaves, often on the same twig together with caterpillars of the more common species, the Hackberry Emperor (Asterocampa celtis). When the Tawny Emperor caterpillars begin to eat in spring, their appearance is hairy and of brownish colour. Their head is never black, (while the head of the young Hackberry Emperor caterpillar is clearly black). When they grow bigger, they are characterized by longitudinal stripes of different colours: a blue-green midline, borderd by two broad yellow stripes. The pre-pupa is attached to a leaf and is whitish-green. The pupa is green and relatively flat, its shape reminds to half a leaf. The pupa has some weak yellowish lines but is basically lacking the clear white stripes on the abdomen, which are a typical character of its sister species, the Hackberry Emperor. The story will be continued with pictures of the pharate pupa and some butterflies.
Best regards,
Thomas
Madison/Wisconsin

Hi Again Thomas,
Once again, we are thankful for the fabulous photo series you have contributed to our site.

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: Tawny Emperors

Related Posts

4 Comments. Leave new

  • Thank you, Daniel!
    These butterflies are so quiet and intent on feeding and sunning that I’m able to get within inches of them with a shorter lens on the camera.
    The Emperors are new to me, but I suspect that I just haven’t been observant.
    I tried looking on the Internet, but have been unable to find information on whether or not we have record numbers of Emperors this year.
    We’ve had some life-giving rains and milder-than-usual temperatures this summer and fall, and our area is unusually green and lush this October. Perhaps we have a bumper crop of Emperors as a consequence.
    I’ll watch for the Emperors in the future to see if we have them each year.
    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Thanks for the additional information Ellen. Sometimes populations of insects fluctuate from year to year.

      Reply
  • Thank you, Daniel!
    These butterflies are so quiet and intent on feeding and sunning that I’m able to get within inches of them with a shorter lens on the camera.
    The Emperors are new to me, but I suspect that I just haven’t been observant.
    I tried looking on the Internet, but have been unable to find information on whether or not we have record numbers of Emperors this year.
    We’ve had some life-giving rains and milder-than-usual temperatures this summer and fall, and our area is unusually green and lush this October. Perhaps we have a bumper crop of Emperors as a consequence.
    I’ll watch for the Emperors in the future to see if we have them each year.
    Thank you!

    Reply
  • Great pictures

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

keyboard_arrow_up