The Viceroy Butterfly and Monarch Mimicry Trickery

I have lived a number of childhood nature dreams involving Monarchs this summer. Thank you very much Wild Peace Farm for making it all possible. I saw a wild Chrysalis (in the tomatoes!), I saw multiple caterpillars molting, I saw a Monarch form its chrysalis, I saw a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis, I saw a Monarch egg hatch. I mean come on! But one thing just got checked off my list, and after so many spoils I wasn’t in any way expecting it.

This butterfly flew around me while I picked Sweet Peppers on Wednesday, and it is not a Monarch. Can you spot the differences?

Viceroy  Viceroy ButterflyMonarch ButterflyMonarch Butterfly (female)

The first thing that stood was the behavior: this stranger butterfly didn’t fly far, it only went a few feet when I startled it and then it stayed within the same 20 square feet. And it flew low and with straighter wings. I had heard of the Viceroy when I was a kid, because it allegedly spent its life trying to convince birds it was a Monarch. I had never thought I would get to see one though and could hardly believe this could be yet another nature dream coming true. Staying in one place and landing frequently, unusual in itself, made the details easier to see. The wings had a plastic sheen, while the Monarch’s wings are look like velvet.  The veins in the hind wings of the Viceroy have a nearly perfect radial symmetry, coming out from a point in the middle like spokes on a bicycle wheel. Then there is a black vein cutting across the edges of each hindwing in a perfectly straight line, meeting just under the abdomen. The Viceroy is also smaller than the Monarch, and it has only one complete row of darkened white dots along its border where the Monarch has two.

Naturally I did some extensive googling later to make sure that my ID was legit. Google images confirmed. But Google also led to some serious doubts about what my schoolteachers said was the classic example of mimicry in nature. They always claimed that the Viceroy, with a caterpillar that eats Willows and plants in the family (caterpillar now on my nature dream list list…) was a delicious treat for birds that tried to look like the yucky and even poisonous Monarch. Clever, right? It’s a bird eat caterpillar world out there, and those babes keep on looking for ways to make it through this life. There is camouflage, used by many caterpillars that most of us have never seen, and there is also being a badass mofo and saying here I am, nature, and you don’t dare eat me! But can those BAMOFOs put their money where their mouths are? Or are they faking it?! One thing that has stayed with me during this Summer of Monarchs is that they are so easy to spot partly because their poison gives them a fearlessness. Some have to be eaten anyway, for new birdies to learn lessons the hard way, so why waste eating time and energy hiding? Just hang out and hope you are not the one that gets sampled. This, and the fact that the Monarch’s food plant, the Milkweed, is all up next to our human business since we both seem to be fans of sunny fields and edges, has made the Monarch one of the very best known insects in the US. That makes it a great and recognizable example for the teacher to offer to the student. But the Viceroy is less well known, less often observed.  And apparently its sweet taste hidden beneath that scary exterior was largely assumption and hearsay right up until 1991.

But also seriously that year some dudes did some experiments on a long-standing assumption and found out that birds were just as nauseated by the abdomen of a Viceroy as they were by a Monarch’s!! This is amazing and makes so much more sense. Convergent (Mullerian) mimicry is so much smarter than just some non-poisonous rando mimicking a poisonous frenemy. See, if a bird samples a non-poisonous mimic, the bird will go on to eat Monarchs too, and may be confused for a little about whether those boos are good or bad to eat. But if you are poisonous, and you can team up with another poisonous friend and look alike, then you will each halve the number of times a bird will need to eat one of your species. Either one will do the trick, sparing the others. Genius!

So remember kids, don’t believe everything you hear. Get all up in nature’s business and see what is going on in front of your own eyeballs. You are bound to find more than you ever dreamed.

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Filed under Butterfly, caterpillars, Insects!

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