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Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus glaucus), a Comprehensive Guide in 9 Sections

Introduction to the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly is found throughout Pennsylvania and from the midwest and eastern North America. It is one of the most seen butterflies in gardens and was one of the first documented butterflies in North America. In 1758, like he did with plants, Carl Von Linnaeus described this butterfly in Systema Naturae.

Taxonomy and Naming of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly on purple flower.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Flower — Meganmccarty, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Taxonomy

This butterfly was named and described by Carl von Linnaeus in 1758 in Systema Naturae. The type specimen as described by Linnaeus was collected in Southampton County, Virginia in what is now Virginia Beach. In 1587, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail was drawn by John White, an illustrator with the “Lost Colony” expedition. It is a member of the family Papilionidae and is in the subfamily Papilioninae.

Meaning of the Scientific and Common Names

Scientific Name

The genus name, Papilio, is Latin for butterfly. The species name, glaucus, means gleaming or gray (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

Common Name

The common name derives from the resemblance of the butterfly to a tiger.

Physical Description of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

Black form of eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly on white flower.
Black form of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail — Shenandoah National Park from Virginia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Description

  • Color: Yellow with black stripes (Male and Female), Dark morph that is black in color (females).
  • Wingspan: 2.5 to 5.5 inches. Females are larger than the males.
  • Active Flying Time: Adults are active between March (in the south) to October.

Life Cycle of this butterfly

Brown caterpillar of eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly.
Brown Caterpillar — Jim Conrad, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Green caterpillar of eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly.
Green Caterpillar — Jacy Lucier, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Eggs

The eggs of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail are commonly laid on members of the Magnoliaceae such as tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) or Rosaceae such as wild black cherry (Prunus serotina). Sometimes they are laid on other trees, particularly aspen (Populus spp.), but the survival is not as good as the other two species.

Larvae

The larvae, or caterpillars, look like brown and white bird droppings for the first three instars in order to provide camouflage from predators. During the 4th instar, they have two large eyes to look like a snake and a larger appearance prior to becoming a chrysalis. While going through the instars they feed on the leaves of the host plant and deter predators with an orange sticky gland called an osmeterium.

In the north, two broods can be produced, while in the south there are often three in a season.

Range of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail in the United States and Canada

Range map of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) in the United States and Canada.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies are found in the mid-west and eastern United States and Ontario in Canada. The are a little bit rarer in the western mid-west.

Habitat

Monet garden at McMullen House Bed & Breakfast.
McMullen House Bed & Breakfast Garden — Author Image

This butterfly is found in a lot of different habitats ranging from wooded areas, roadsides, gardens, and fields. Essentially anywhere there is a nectar source, however a wooded area is always nearby.

Host Plants

Close-up of white flowers of wild black cherry (Prunus serotina).
White Flowers of Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) — Author Image

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is considered to be a generalist, but it prefers cherries (Prunus spp.), tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), and basswood (Tilia americana). It also uses trees in the birch (Betulaceae) and willow (Salicaceae) families. In the south, this butterfly can also have an affinity for sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana).

Nectar Plants

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with eastern tiger swallowtail.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Common Milkweed — Author Image

Like a lot of other butterflies, it likes flowers from milkweeds (Asclepias spp.). It also likes Joe-Pye weeds (Eutrochium spp.), cherries (Prunus spp.), and lilac (Syringa vulgaris).

Frequently Asked Questions about the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Are the male and females of this butterfly different?

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail males are the typical yellow with black stripes, that is often portrayed of this butterfly. The females, however, can have two phases, a yellow and a darker nearly black phase (see image in “physical description” section). The dark phase is more common in the second brood, than the first.

What other butterflies look like Eastern Tiger Swallowtail?

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is quite distinctive with the yellow and black stripes. However, there is a western version called the Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) that looks very similar, but generally ranges west of this butterfly. The female “dark phase” does look like a lot of other butterflies and this is by design for protection from predators. The other butterflies are distasteful to birds and this butterfly use mimics them (mimicry) to get the same benefits, since the birds cannot tell the difference.

The butterflies the dark phase looks like include:

Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor): The pipevine swallowtail is distinguished by a row of light-colored spots on the wing margins.

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus): The spicebush swallowtail is distinguished by its more greenish color and two rows of orange spots on the hindwing.

Female Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes): Female black swallowtails have two rows of yellow-orange spots.

Interesting facts about this butterfly?

It is the state butterfly in five states (Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina) and state insect in Virginia.

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Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe is a professional ecologist and botanist who has worked as the State Ecologist of Delaware and as an ecologist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He is also a former Past-President of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science. He currently is an innkeeper at McMullen House Bed & Breakfast LLC and a web designer and owner for Silphium Design LLC.

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