Mimicry and the Swallowtails

Swallowtails, so beautiful, so fast. They begin to speed through our yard in late May or early June, and continue showing up now and then throughout the summer. In southern Iowa there are 6 species of swallowtail butterflies that we can see:

  • the eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
  • black swallowtail (Papilio polyxene)
  • giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)
  • spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus)
  • pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor)
  • and the zebra swallowtail (Protographium marcellus)

The first three are found throughout the eastern U.S., and the last three don’t go much further north than Iowa -the last two, zebra, and pipevine swallowtails are considered visitors, and not truly resident butterflies (so it’s extra special if you see one!). If any of these awesome swallowtails visits your yard, and they slow down enough for you to get a look at them, hopefully the following photo gallery can help you easily ID your swallowtail. And if you know which swallowtails are in your area, then you know which host plants to plant for next year (hooray!). Interestingly (and perhaps inconveniently), each species has a different host plant for their caterpillars! What?! Let’s break it down!

Swallowtail Identification

Eastern tiger swallowtails

Black swallowtails

Giant swallowtails

Pipevine Swallowtails

Spicebush swallowtails

Zebra swallowtails

The North American Mimicry Complex

Now, if you were looking at some of the species up above and thinking, “What! These look the same!” you would be right. What we have here in our swallowtails is a case of mimicry. Among various species, what we see is that often, if there is a truly disgusting butterfly (to the taste of toads, birds, and other predators, of course), through natural selection and millions of years, numerous other butterflies end up looking like the gross butterfly (the scientific term is “unpalatable”). In a sense, the disgusting butterfly, by virtue of being so disgusting, creates a predator-free space, and we see that simply looking like the disgusting or toxic butterfly, allows a delicious butterfly to enter that predator-free space -no one even wants to risk eating them. In the case of swallowtails, a dark butterfly with blue on the bottom wings -forget about it! No way does anyone want to eat that nasty butterfly. They gain longer lives, increased reproduction, and over evolutionary time, mimicry develops. Mimicking an unpalatable or toxic “model” is called Batesian mimicry.

“Perhaps, the peak of Batesian mimetic perfection, diversity, and complexity is seen in butterflies…”


And we see that about 25% of the approximately 200 species of swallowtail butterflies are mimics. In fact, half of our local swallowtails have ended up mimics. Me personally (if it were up to me!), I would have them all look different, but it’s not up to me, it’s up to natural selection.

Caterpillars of the swallowtail North American mimicry complex. From left to right: the Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor), Eastern black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), and spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) Photo by Ansel Oommen, CC

According to Sylvio G. Codella, entomologist and evolutionary ecologist at Kean University, what we have here is an “extensive North American mimicry complex,” consisting of the eastern tiger swallowtail, the black swallowtail, the pipevine swallowtail, the spicebush swallowtail, red-spotted purples, and female dianas. So just who is the nasty butterfly?? It is the beautiful-nasty pipevine swallowtail.

And once again the swallowtail mimics

Why Pipevine Swallowtails Are Repulsive

Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars feed exclusively on plants in the genus Aristolochia (a group of plants known as Dutchman’s pipes).  The caterpillars store aristolochic acids from the plants, and render themselves, their pupae form, their adult form, and their future eggs distasteful and toxic.  

Aristolochia macrophylla, is probably the most widespread Dutchman’s pipe vine, and the one most commonly sold, but according to an article by the North American Butterfly Association, woolly Dutchman’s pipe vine, Aristolochia tomentosa, might be a better suited choice for Midwest gardens. 

Attracting Swallowtails

When encouraging butterflies to visit your yard, the best strategy is to plant both host plants for the caterpillars and preferred nectar plants for the adults. Host plants will get a swallowtail’s attention, and if they can find some nectar plants, too, they might just decide to stay for awhile.

Midwestern host and nectar plants for swallowtails
SpeciesHost PlantsNectar Plants
Eastern tiger swallowtailWild black cherry, Prunus serotina
Sweet bay magnolia, Magnolia virginiana
Tulip trees, Liriodendron tulipifera
Crabapple, Malus spp.
Joe Pye weed, Eutrochium spp.
Wild plum, Prunus americana
Garden phlox, Phlox paniculata
Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis
Black swallowtailCurly-leaved parsley (very attractive by some reports)
Golden alexanders, Zizia spp.
Milkweeds, Asclepias spp.
Joe Pye weed, Eutrochium spp.
Blazingstars, Liatris spp.
Giant swallowtailPrickly Ash, Zanthoxylum americanum
Common Hoptree, Ptelia trifoliata
Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata
Beebalm, Monarda fistulosa
Ironweeds, Vernonia spp.
Thistles, Circium spp.
Spicebush swallowtailSpicebush, Lindera benzoin
White sassafras, Sassafras albidum
Milkweeds, Asclepias spp.
Joe-Pye weed, Eutrochium spp.
Bazingstars, Liatris spp.
Thistles, Circium spp.
Jewel weed, Impatiens capensis
Pipevine swallowtailDutchman’s pipe vine, Aristolochia spp.
Woolly Dutchman’s pipe for the midwest, Aristolochia tomentosa
Phlox, Phlox spp.
Ironweeds, Vernonia spp.
Thistles, Circium spp.
Zebra swallowtailCommon pawpaw, Asmina trilobaBlackberry, Rubus spp.
Blueberries, Vaccinium spp.
Dogbane, Apocynum cannibinum
Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa

What types of swallowtails have you seen in your yard? Let me know!



Featured creatures, Pipevine Swallowtail, by Donald W. Hall         

A tale of four swallowtails, Ansel Oommen, Front Ecol Environ 2018; 16( 6): 335– 335

The Gardener’s Butterfly Book, Alan Branhagen

Butterfly mimicry through the eyes of bird predators, by Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

Host Plant: Aristolochia, by Lenora Larson, North America Butterfly Association

From a Caterpillar to a Butterfly; Don’t Eat ’em -Here’s Why, by Kathy Keatley Garvey       

How a “flipped” gene helped butterflies evolve mimicry, by Matt Wood

Signal categorization by foraging animals depends on ecological diversity, Kikuchi et al. eLife 2019; 8:e43965.

Intersexual Comparison of Mimetic Protection in the Black Swallowtail Butterfly, Papilio polyxenes: Experiments with Captive Blue Jay Predators. Codella, S., & Lederhouse, R. (1989). Evolution,43 (2), 410-420.