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Vanessa cardui

What do they look like?

Eggs are pale green, placed one by one on the uppersides of leaves. The caterpillars vary in color, they are grayish-brown or darker, and darker at each end than in the middle. They have a yellow stripe down the back and along each side, and many spines on their back and sides. The pupa can also be different colors, metallic-greenish, or bluish-white, or brown. Adult Painted Lady Butterflies have speckled wings with brown, black, red and white markings. The upper side has more red and sometimes pink or orange, the underside is more brown and black. The forewings have a white bar, and the hindwing has a row of 5 tiny black dots. When the wings are folded, they appear camouflaged.

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike

Where do they live?

This is one of the most common butterfly species in the world. The only places it doesn't live are on Antarctica and some remote islands. It even migrates to Hawaii and Iceland!

What kind of habitat do they need?

Painted Lady Butterflies are found almost anywhere, but they prefer brightly lit and open environments like clover fields, flowery meadows and hilly country.

How do they grow?

Females lay eggs on the plants their babies will eat. The caterpillars that hatch out feed continuously and molt several times. After a few weeks they transform into a pupa, go through a complete metamorphosis, and emerge as an adult butterfly. The timing of this depends on the climate, the warmer it is the faster they grow.

How do they reproduce?

In the temperate zone, reproductive behavior stops in the fall, but it may go on year-round in warmer climates.

  • Breeding season
    All year in the tropics, spring and summer in cooler climates.
  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement

How long do they live?

Lifespan depends on the climate, but is probably never more than one winter. Only adults survive through winter, and even then only in mild climates.

How do they behave?

Many Painted Lady butterflies migrate: every year great numbers of them fly north in the spring and summer, and then return in the fall.

What do they eat?

The caterpillars of this species prefer the leaves of plants in the daisy family (Compositaceae) especially thistles, but can eat many different kinds of plants. Adult painted ladies sip nectar from flowers, and sometimes take "honeydew" from aphids (See Aphids).

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Adult painted ladies' main defenses are flight and camouflage. The caterpillars hide in small silk nests on top of leaves, and may have chemical defenses, but this is uncertain.

Are they endangered?

These are such common butterflies that they need no special conservation efforts.

Some more information...

Painted Lady Butterflies are also known as Thistle Butterflies because of their strong liking for thistles. They are also known as the Cosmopolitan because they are found around the world.


Marie S. Harris (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.


Opler, Paul A. A Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992.

Sheilds, O. World Distribution of of the Vanessa Cardui group. Journal of the Lepidopterists' Society 46(6):235-238.

Shull, Ernest M.. The Butterflies of Indiana. Indiana Academy of Science, 1987.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Harris, M. 1999. "Vanessa cardui" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed August 28, 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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