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Kids' Inquiry of Diverse Species

Local animals in this group:


What do they look like?

This family contains species that are the largest butterflies in North America. Swallowtails get their name from the "tails" on the back edge of their wings that reminded people of the forked tails of Swallows. Adults swallowtails have black or black and yellow/white wings, sometimes with additional blue or red markings. All Michigan species have the tails on their hindwings, but some species in other parts of North America don't have them.

Swallowtail caterpillars are large and smooth, but they have an orange "horn" that is hidden under the skin of the thorax. They pop it up when they are threatened by predators, and it gives off repellent chemicals. Young caterpillars are black with white spots, and look like bird droppings. As they get older they change color, then they are often green but with black or yellow stripes, and several species have large spots that look like eyes.

Some species of swallowtails are mimics of others that have toxic compounds in their bodies.

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • sexes shaped differently

Where do they live?

There are over 550 species of swallowtails around the world. Most are tropical, only about 30 are found in the United States, and only 8 are in Michigan.

What kind of habitat do they need?

Adult swallowtails fly in open areas (fields, vacant lots, meadows, open forest, sides of streams) near their food plants, especially where there are abundant flowers.

Caterpillars are found on their food plants.

How do they grow?

Like all Moths and Butterflies, this family has complete metamorphosis. See More Information on Butterflies and Moths for an explanation of this. In cold climates they spend the winter as pupa in a chrysalis (no cocoon).

How long do they live?

These butterflies don't usually live more than a year. They often have two generations a year, with some adults emerging in the Spring, and then their offspring emerging as adults in Fall. This second generation only lives for a few months.

How do they behave?

Adults are only active during the day. Caterpillars may be active day or night. They are all solitary animals. A few species occasionally migrate, but this is not common.

How do they communicate with each other?

Like all butterflies, they mainly use scent and sight for communication. Males attract females with pheromones and special display flights. Females leave scent marks on plants where they've laid eggs, telling other female not to put their eggs there.

What do they eat?

Swallowtail catepillars eat leaves and flowers of particular plans. One Michigan species only eats plants in the genus Aristolochia (Virginia Snakeroot, Dutchman's Pipe). Another prefers trembling aspen, another wild cherry. Several species eat plants in the carrot family.

Adult swallowtails sip nectar, but also mud and sometimes manure.

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Many of these species defend themselves with toxic chemicals, or mimic species that do. The caterpillars all produce chemicals the repel ants. They also are camouflaged, especially when they are young. The eyespots may startle or confuse a predator.

Adult swallowtails are strong fliers, and hide in trees at night.

How do they interact with us?

These butterflies don't have strong effects on humans one way or the other. Sometimes they are a garden pest, eating carrots and related plants but this is not common. One species in the south is sometimes a minor pest of orange and lemon trees.

Are they endangered?

One species in Michigan is considered threatened, it is the Pipe-vine Swallowtail, Battus philenor. It's existence is threatened in Michigan because its food plant has become rare. It is still common in other states. This species collects toxic chemicals from its food plant, and so birds won't eat it. Several other species are mimics of this species. If the toxic species disappears, the birds won't learn not to eat it, and the mimics won't get any protection from looking like it anymore.

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated

Some more information...

This family includes the largest butterfly species in Michigan, the Giant Swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes. It can have a wingspan of 15 cm. The largest butterflies in the world are in this family too, they are called "birdwing butterflies" and live in Australia and Southeast Asia. The largest have wingspans of over 25 cm!



Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map


living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map


living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends.


mid-altitude coastal areas with mild, rainy winters and long, dry summers. Dominant plant types are dense, evergreen shrubs.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature


union of egg and spermatozoan


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


A large change in the shape or structure of an animal that happens as the animal grows. In insects, "incomplete metamorphosis" is when young animals are similar to adults and change gradually into the adult form, and "complete metamorphosis" is when there is a profound change between larval and adult forms. Butterflies have complete metamorphosis, grasshoppers have incomplete metamorphosis.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Climbing plants are also abundant. There is plenty of moisture and rain, but may be somewhat seasonal.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


lives alone


a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.


this biome is characterized by large expanses of coniferous forest, there is an extended cold season and heavy snowfall.


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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. "Papilionidae" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 19, 2014 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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