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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Gulf Fritillary Butterfly – Agraulis vanillae

Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanilla) on Coyote mint (Monardella villosa)

Bright orange butterflies are now flitting through many Southern California gardens.  A bit smaller and brighter than the Monarchs, they seem particularly attracted to the pink and purple flowers in Mother Nature’s Backyard.  These colorful visitors are the Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae).

Gulf Fritillaries are medium-sized butterflies with a wingspan of 2.5-3.75 inches (6-9.5 cm).   They are members of the Family Nymphalidae, the brush-foot butterflies, which includes such well-loved locals as the Monarch, Red Admiral and the Painted, West Coast and American Lady butterflies.   While this large family is found world-wide, the brush-foots are most plentiful in the tropics.  In fact, the Gulf Fritillary, itself, is best considered a tropical butterfly.

The name ‘brush-foot’ refers to the front legs, which are short or rudimentary, hairy and not used for walking.  North American brush-foot butterflies are often medium-sized, with showy colors or patterning, and rigid, clubbed antennae (knobs at the ends).  The vein pattern of the forewings is also unique to this family.  You can see all of these characteristics in the picture below.

Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanilla) on Purple sage
 (Salvia leucophylla)

The Gulf Fritillary belongs to the sub-family Heliconiiae, the heliconians or long-wings.   These, mostly tropical, butterflies have an elongated forewing and are often brightly colored in shades of orange and black.  Their colors ‘announce’ that they are toxic; like the Monarchs, long-wing larvae feed primarily on poisonous tropical plants.   

The geographic distribution of the Gulf Fritillary, which feeds on Passion-vines, is limited by the availability of this larval food plant.  While native to South and Central America, the West Indies and the American South, its range spread to California with the inclusion of Passion-vines in local gardens.  The first recorded sighting in Southern California is from the 1870’s [1].

Gulf Fritillaries are colorful and distinctive whether viewed from either the upper or lower side.  Females are only slightly larger and less brightly colored than the males.  In both sexes, the upper side is bright red-orange with prominent black veins on the elongated forewing. The patterns are very regular, symmetric and attractive.  The border of orange circles (edged in black) on the hind wing resembles a lacy edging.  There are also some symmetric, black and black-white dots on the upper side (see photo above).  For more good photographs, see references 2 & 3 at the end of the post.


The underside of these butterflies is even more enchanting.  While not as bright, the underside sports distinctive shiny, translucent patches rimmed in black.  These large blotches flash silver with motion, a distinctive feature visible even in flight. No other local garden butterfly has these large, silvery patches; they are the best identifying characteristic for the Gulf Fritillary.  


But that’s not all! This is truly a lovely and exotic butterfly when seen close-up. Closer observation reveals the intricate coloration of the body and unusual orange eyes with dark spots (above).  Fortunately, Agraulis vanillae is fairly easy to photograph.  It’s relatively large and slow-flying; and it perches and feeds regularly, making it a good subject for insect photography.  For more tips on photographing butterflies see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2015/07/life-friendly-gardening-photographing.html.

The larvae (caterpillars) are also distinctive.   Since we’re a California native plant garden (sans non-native Passion Vines) we haven’t any photographs.  But wonderful photos of the complete life cycle are available from the Rio Grande Valley Nature Site: http://www.thedauphins.net/id113.html.  The larvae are orange and black striped, with rings of black spines around the body.  You’ve likely seen them if you have the right Passion Vine in your yard.  The larval coloration signals ‘don’t eat me – I’m poisonous’.  For more on Gulf Fritillaries, Passion vines and poisons see: http://bugoftheweek.com/blog/2015/2/23/beautiful-but-stinky-gulf-fritillary-iagraulis-vanillaei.

Many adult Gulf Fritillaries live only a few weeks, although some will overwinter in warm locations. These older adults often look quite tattered by spring.  Males can be seen cruising the garden, searching for females, most months of the year in western Los Angeles County.  Females lay their mound-shaped eggs on the larval food plants. 


Gulf Fritillary caterpillars eat several species of Passion Vines (Passaflora species) including Passiflora incarnata (Purple passionvine or maypops; native to Eastern U.S) and P. foetida (Stinking passionflower, Corona de Cristo or Running pop; native to tropical Americas). Both of these plants can be invasive; in fact, the Purple passionvine is a serious invasive pest plant in the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve.  So while Passion Vines attract Gulf Fritillaries, we have a love-hate relationship with them in our Preserve.  We’ve been known to call it ‘Hate it with a Passion Vine’ as we work to remove it!

The Agraulis vanillae chrysalis (cocoon) looks like a dried leaf hanging from the vine.  This is another great example of the ways in which butterflies have evolved multiple mechanisms (toxic chemicals; mimicry and camouflage) to insure survival of the species. See references 2 & 3 for good chrysalis pictures.


Adult Gulf Fritillaries nectar on a variety of native and non-native plants.  In Mother Nature’s Backyard, they tend to favor purple-flowered species in the Mint family including Coyote Mint (Monardella villosa), the Woodmints (Stachys species) and the native sages (Salvia species).  Of course they flock to tropical flowers like the popular Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia species) and the Lantanas.   They also frequent native and non-native plants in the Sunflower family.

In their native range, Gulf Fritillaries live in open areas like fields or openings in the tropical forests.  Here in California, you’ll see them in urban/suburban gardens or areas near gardens with Passion vines.  Growers raise Gulf Fritillaries for sale and they are released for weddings and other celebrations [1].  This has likely helped increase their numbers in recent years.  In fact, they are a very common butterfly in Southern California and not endangered anywhere in their range.

We hope you enjoy watching these pretty butterflies as much as we do.  But don’t feel you need to plant a Passion vine – the abundance of Gulf Fritillaries in most neighborhoods is a clear indication that we have enough Passion vines already!


1.    Art Shapiro’s Butterfly Site: http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu/node/448 
2.    Butterflies and Moths of North America: http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Agraulis-vanillae
3.    Butterflies of Orange County: http://nathistoc.bio.uci.edu/lepidopt/nymph/gulf.htm

We encourage your comments below.   If you have questions about garden butterflies or other gardening topics you can e-mail us at :  mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com






1 comment:

  1. Isn't it interesting how these dilemmas crop up: butterflies are almost universally loved. We want to encourage them. And in doing so, without knowing a lot about the overall ecological balance, we might use plants that come with other side effects. Sometimes I get so frustrated about how much we are expecting the general public to know in order to make gardens!