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whites and sulphurs


What do they look like?

Adult butterflies in this family are nearly all white or yellow, which is where they get their name. Their wings may have a few dark spots, or a dark edge, but they don't have many stripes or spots. They are medium-sized butterflies, with all six legs fully developed. In some species the color of adults is affected by the temperature when they pupated. Cooler temperatures usually produce darker colors.

Some species of Whites feed on plants in the mustard family that have toxic chemicals for protection. The caterpillars store the toxins in their body to discourage predators from eating them. Some other species of Whites may be mimicking the toxic ones by having similar wing colors and patterns.

The caterpillars in this group are mostly green or yellow and cylinder-shaped, and are covered with fine hairs or little black bumps.

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • female larger

Where do they live?

There are over 1,100 species in this family, and they are found all over the world. There are 58 species in the U.S., and we have 17 different species in Michigan.

What kind of habitat do they need?

These butterfly species can be found in open areas wherever their food plants occur. Some species live in the Arctic tundra, others in tropical jungle. They are most common in places with lots of plant growth, but some feed on desert plants, and some in high rocky mountains. They feed on leafy weeds and herbs and vegetables, not trees, so they are most common in meadows and open areas, not forests.

How do they grow?

Like all butterflies, these have complete metamorphosis. The caterpillars that hatch from the eggs eat and grow fast. They do not make a coccoon, but do attach themselves to plants with silk threads. Species in cold climates hibernate as caterpillars or pupae, and may have more than one generation over the summer.

How long do they live?

Most only live for about a year or less, but some cold-climate species may live for two. These animals only live for a short time (a few days or weeks) as adults, they spend most of their lives in the immature stages. Some species can complete more than one generation a year, so individuals are only living for a few months.

How do they behave?

Caterpillars in this species often feed at night and hide during the day. The adults are just the opposite, they are active only during the day. Some species migrate north in the spring or south in the fall to take advantage of good climates. They don't live long enough to make the return trip, only their offspring do.

How do they communicate with each other?

These butterflies communicate mainly with their scent and their colors. Males attract mates with scent and display, and females leave a scent mark on plants where they have laid eggs.

What do they eat?

Caterpillars of whites and sulfurs eat the leaves and flowers of plants. Most species only eat plants in the mustard family (including cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, kale, and related vegetables) or in the bean family (including alfalfa and peas).

Adults sip flowers for nectar and mud for minerals and water.

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Caterpillars hide, and have camouflage colors. A few species make nests of silk to hide in.

Adults fly during the day, and hide at night.

Some species collect toxic chemicals from their food plants.

They may have toxic chemicals from their food

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Adults are pollinators, caterpillars can be important herbivores, limiting some plant populations.

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • pollinates

Do they cause problems?

One species of White, the Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae) was accidentally brought to North America from Europe. It is a major pest on vegetables. Some native species eat alfalfa crops and other peas and beans.

  • Ways that these animals might be a problem for humans
  • crop pest

How do they interact with us?

Caterpillars of some species in this family eat plants that are weeds.

Are they endangered?

None of the White or Sulphur species in the U.S. are considered endangered.

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated



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

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

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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.

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

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

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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.


a wetland area rich in accumulated plant material and with acidic soils surrounding a body of open water. Bogs have a flora dominated by sedges, heaths, and sphagnum.


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

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

  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


referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.


marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.


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.


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


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.


active during the night


generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.

oceanic islands

islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.


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

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


the regions of the earth that surround the north and south poles, from the north pole to 60 degrees north and from the south pole to 60 degrees south.


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


offspring are all produced in a single group (litter, clutch, etc.), after which the parent usually dies. Semelparous organisms often only live through a single season/year (or other periodic change in conditions) but may live for many seasons. In both cases reproduction occurs as a single investment of energy in offspring, with no future chance for investment in reproduction.


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.


A terrestrial biome found in very cold places -- either close to polar regions or high on mountains. Part of the soil stays frozen all year. Few kinds of plants grow here, and these are low mats or shrubs not trees. The growing season is short.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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. "Pieridae" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 17, 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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