This article will explore the fascinating world of beautiful but poisonous butterflies.
You may ask, “Why does a butterfly need to be poisonous?”.
Butterflies are fragile animals with no defence against predators. By feeding on toxic plants as caterpillars, they can store the poisonous chemicals in their body for when they become adult butterflies.
This makes the butterfly uneditable to predators. When a bird eats a butterfly, it will be sick and will learn not to eat that species of butterfly again.
So, if you’re ready to delve into the world of these beautiful yet deadly insects, keep reading!
The Atala butterfly (Eumaeus atala) is also known as the coontie hairstreak. In the US, they are only found in the southeast of Florida, but outside the states, they can be found in the Bahamas, Cayman Islands and Cuba.
Atala butterflies get their toxicity from the zamia integrifolia, also known as the coontie plant it eats as a caterpillar. The whole plant contains a toxic compound called cycasin which can cause liver failure.
The Atala butterfly has a reddish-orange abdomen with velvety black wings. They have three rows of iridescent blue spots on the dorsal side of their wings. They have a wingspan of 3.8 – 5.1 cm (1.5 – 2 in).
Scarce Blue Tiger
The scarce blue tiger (Tirumala gautama) is a species of butterfly found in India and Southeast Asia. It is also known as the lime butterfly and the blue diadem.
The scarce blue tiger caterpillar feeds on plants from the milkweed family, making it toxic. They have black wings with light blue spots and streaks with a wingspan of 7.5 – 10.5 cm (3 – 4.1 in).
The fiery acraea (Acraea acrita) is a brightly coloured butterfly found in large parts of Africa. Its wings are predominantly red with an orange tint spread over the outer half of the forewing.
The pattern and colours on the butterfly’s ventral and dorsal sides are similar, with the ventral side slightly paler than the dorsal side. They have a wingspan of 4.5 – 5.5 cm (1.8 – 2.2 in).
The bright colours warn predators that they are toxic. The butterfly’s larvae feed on various species of Adenia, which contain toxins that the larvae incorporate into their bodies, making them poisonous.
The fiery acraea is found in rocky outcrops and mountainous regions of the country, particularly in Kavango, Damaraland, and Ovamboland.
You might be familiar with the beautiful orange and black monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterfly. They’re not just pretty to look at; they also have a secret weapon to protect themselves from predators by being poisonous.
Monarchs become poisonous in their caterpillar stage by feeding on milkweed plants containing toxic compounds called cardenolides. By storing these toxins in their body, monarch butterflies become unpalatable to many predators.
Monarch butterflies also embark on incredible migratory journeys. These butterflies travel thousands of miles during their migration across North America. However, their range is wider than North America, as they’re also found in places like Hawaii, Australia, and Europe.
This makes them one of the world’s most well-known and widely distributed butterflies.
Giant African Swallowtail
The giant African swallowtail (Papilio Antiochus) is one of the largest butterflies in the world and the largest in Africa, with a wingspan of up to 23 – 25 cm (9 – 9.8 in). Being Africa’s biggest butterfly possibly makes it the most poisonous butterfly in Africa.
Giant African swallowtails are one of the most toxic butterflies in the world. It produces a toxin called aristolochic acid, which it obtains from the plants it feeds on during its larval stage. The poison is stored in the butterfly’s body and is used as a defence mechanism against predators.
The butterfly has a distinctive pattern and colouration on both sides of its wings. On the ventral side, the wings are orange-brown with black markings, while on the dorsal side, the wings are black with blue and green markings. These colours and patterns warn predators that the butterfly is poisonous and should not be eaten.
The postman butterfly (Heliconius melpomene) uses its bright red-orange markings on its otherwise black wings to warn that it is poisonous to predators. Its bright colours also help to attract a mate.
The butterfly’s toxicity comes from the passion flower vines it feeds on in its caterpillar stage. The toxins from the plant remain in the butterfly’s body, making it poisonous for the rest of its life.
The postman butterfly is found in various parts of Central and South America, including Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. They inhabit rainforests and cloud forests. They have a wingspan of 5.5 – 8 cm (2 – 3 in).
Common Indian Crow
The common Indian crow (Euploea core) is not a colourful butterfly but is still poisonous due to the toxins it accumulates from its diet as a caterpillar. They have a wingspan of 8 – 9 cm (3 – 3.5 in).
It has a black-and-white striped pattern with white spots on the ventral side of its wings. It has a black-and-white striped pattern with white spots and a blue iridescence on the dorsal side of its wings.
The common Indian crow is commonly found in tropical regions of India, including the Western Ghats, the Eastern Ghats, and the Himalayas. It is also found in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
The red lacewing (Cethosia biblis) is most commonly found in India, Indonesia, and Malaysia containing more than twenty subspecies. They are medium-sized butterflies with a wingspan of 8 – 9 cm (3 – 3.5 in).
The toxins that make the butterfly poisonous come from the plants the caterpillar feeds on, mainly various passiflora species. The plant’s roots and foliage are poisonous.
The dorsal side of their wings is a bright orange-red colour with black borders. The pattern on the ventral side combines red, black, and white, making it difficult for predators to spot the butterfly when it rests on a leaf or flower.
Pipevine swallowtails (Battus philenor) can be found throughout North and Central America.
The ventral side of the wings of the Pipevine Swallowtail is black with iridescent blue scaling. The dorsal side of the wings is a striking blue with a row of small, white spots near the edge of the hindwings.
The pipevine swallowtail caterpillar feeds on plants from the Aristolochia family, which contains a dangerous toxin that causes kidney failure. The wingspan of this butterfly ranges from 5 – 7.5 cm (2 – 3 in).
The zebra longwing (Heliconius charithonia) is a beautiful butterfly with a unique striped pattern on its wings. These stripes are black and white and cover both sides of their wings. Their wings are elongated and measure 7 – 10 cm (2.7 – 4 in).
Zebra longwing butterflies are poisonous because their caterpillars feed on passion flower plants and acquire some toxins, making them distasteful to predators. The striking colours and patterns of the adults advertise their toxicity.
These butterflies are known for their long lifespan of about six months, which is longer than most other butterfly species. This is because they are the only butterflies known to eat pollen, providing them with the necessary nutrients to live longer.
Zebra longwings are found in the southeastern United States, south through Central America, and into South America. They are commonly found in open fields, meadows, and gardens.
Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing
The Queen Alexandra’s birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae) is the largest butterfly in the world, with a wingspan of 27 cm (10.6 in). They are possibly the most poisonous butterfly on this list. These butterflies are native to Papua New Guinea and are named after Queen Alexandra of England.
Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterflies are poisonous because their caterpillars feed on the poisonous leaves of a tropical vine called aristolochia, which contain toxic aristolochic acid. The toxins are retained in the butterfly’s body and make them unpalatable to predators.
Male queen Alexandra’s birdwing have vibrant colours, with the top of their wings being a greenish blue with a black central band. The underside is green or blue-green with black veins, with the abdomen is bright yellow.
The female is more muted, with brown wings with white markings arranged as two rows of chevrons. The hindwings are brown with a submarginal line of centred yellow triangles. The body is cream-coloured, with a small section of red fur on the brown thorax.