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Gulf Fritillary Butterfly - Agraulis vanillae

Phylum: Arthropoda - Class: Insecta - Order: Lepidoptera - Family: Nymphalidae

Gulf Fritillary butterfly

The Gulf Fritillary, more commonly referred to in the Caribbean as the Silver-spotted Flambeau, is widespread and relatively common in Barbados (where butterflies are far from plentiful). It is one of the few butterflies likely to be seen in flower gardens, where it comes to drink nectar. These long-winged butterflies are not close relatives of the true fritillaries (such as the Marsh Fritillary).

Distribution

The 'Gulf' in the common name that is used most often in the USA is a reference to the Gulf of Mexico, of course, and not the Arabian Gulf. This a mainly South-American and West Indies species, but it is also resident all-year round in Florida and Texas. The practice of planting Passionflowers in gardens is drawing it further north, even into central parts the USA during the warmer months of the year.

Although occasionally seen on forest paths, this is primarily a sun-loving butterfly, and sunlight certainly helps to show it off at its very best. The wingspan is usually between 6.5 and 8cm, and the upperside of wings and body is fiery orange; however, the undersides of the wings are buff with large silver spots. Males and females look very similar (to us, that is!) Key distinguishing features are two, or more often three, silvery-white spots ringed in black on each of the upper front forewings. (In the specimen shown here the third spot is entirely black.)

Lifecycle

The yellow eggs are laid singly on leaves or buds of the larval foodplants. Fully grown caterpilars are about 4cm long and bright orange with soft black spines that do not sting; however, the larvae feed mainly at night, and as a further defence mechanism they are toxic and so birds tend to avoid them.

Looking like a curled-up dead leaf hanging from a twig, the olive-brown marbled chrysalis has small silvery streaks along the dorsal edges of its wing cases.

The larval foodplants of this distinctive butterfly are Passionflowers, Passiflora species. In Barbados, where we photographed these butterflies, they were flitting among the beautiful (but supposedly stinky) Passiflora foetida (below).

Gulf Fritillary on Passiflora foetida

Studying butterflies and moths...


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