Red-Spotted Purple

Limenitis arthemis

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Photo of a Red-Spotted Purple with wings closed, showing ventral side of wings
The red-spotted purple is a stunning butterfly, even though the spots are really orange, not red, and blue is more prominent than the subtle violet hues.
Donna Brunet
Other Common Name
White Admiral; Red-Spotted Admiral
Family

Nymphalidae (brushfooted butterflies)

Description

Adult red-spotted purples are thought to mimic pipevine swallowtails, and they can be difficult to separate from any dark swallowtails if seen in flight at a distance. Note the lack of tails, the black lines near the hindwing margin dorsal view (seen from above), and the red-orange spots on the underside (ventral side) of the wings. No swallowtails have ventral red-orange spots near the body.

The larvae mimic bird droppings. They are humped at the thorax and covered with numerous tubercles, with one longer pair on the thorax. Body color is mottled shades of brown, brownish yellow, white, and green.

Size

Wingspan: 2¼–3½ inches.

Red-Spotted Purple

Red-Spotted Purple
Red-Spotted Purple
Red-Spotted Purple in Carter Co

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Photo of a red-spotted purple
Red-Spotted Purple
Red-spotted purples resemble swallowtails, but lack the swallow-tails. Also, no swallowtails have red-orange spots near the body (viewed from below).

Red-Spotted Purple in Webster Groves

Large blue butterfly with red tips sits on a screendoor in suburban St. Louis
Red-Spotted Purple

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A dark butterfly with orange spots along the top of the wings sits on a leaf
Red-spotted purple butterfly on a leaf
Habitat and conservation

Found in and near woods, parks, and suburban neighborhoods. Adults frequently sit on trees and shrubs, slowly opening and closing their wings. They are often seen at mud puddles and damp places along creek beds, where they take moisture from the damp ground.

Foods

Larvae feed on a the foliage of a wide variety of deciduous trees and shrubs, including willows, wild cherry, apple, and crab apple. The adults visit flowers, but they prefer to absorb moisture and nutrients from puddles, damp ground, decaying fruit, and animal droppings.

image of Red-Spotted Purple Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Common breeding resident. Taxonomically, our "red-spotted purple" form of this species used to be considered a separate subspecies (astyanax) from the other forms of this widespread North American butterfly. Elsewhere on the continent, at least two other forms (often called "white admirals") are a lot like our butterfly, but have the addition of a broad white band running across the middle of all the wings, both above and below. These different races interbreed in areas where their populations overlap, and their offspring often show a blend of characteristics.

Life cycle

Adults fly from May into October. Partially grown caterpillars hibernate through winter sheltered in a rolled leaf that is spun into a tube and secured to the twig with silk. During hibernation, the caterpillar’s breathing and metabolic rate slow; its blood thickens, and the percentage of water in the body drops from 80 percent to 55 percent to prevent freezing damage.

Human connections

Although the spots are really orange and not red, and blue is more prominent than the subtle violet hues, the red-spotted purple is a stunning sight, evoking awe and appreciation.

Ecosystem connections

The lookalike pipevine swallowtail is toxic to its would-be predators. The red-spotted purple is palatable but has a color pattern that mimics the toxic species. Predators avoid both of them on sight. The larvae also use coloration to avoid being eaten — they resemble unappetizing bird droppings!