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Tropical Butterflies

Updated on August 19, 2014

Flying Flowers

We are very lucky because we have a local butterfly exhibit that lasts from October through April. For this exhibit, they bring in tropical butterflies from all over the world, and they let them live in the tropical greenhouse. This is located in the Tucson Botanical Gardens. I try to go once a month for the entire season, to take pictures. I also have a few pictures from other butterfly exhibits. The advantage of such butterfly exhibits isn't just so that people can see them. Many of these organizations are also involved in butterfly conservation. There are butterfly exhibits in many parts of the world. My husband saw a fantastic one in Malaysia years ago.

One of the most incredible things to me about butterflies and moths is their four life stages, particularly during the pupa stage. They say that during this stage, the body of the larva completely dissolves and re-forms. How that is possible boggles my mind. But obviously, their adult form is always radically different from their larval form!

The butterfly on the left is an Owlet, Opsiphanes sp. It is native to Central and South America.

(Photo credits Pat Goltz)

Blue Morpho

Morpho peleides

From Central and South America.

This was pretty much my favorite tropical butterfly before I got to know many others. They are difficult to photograph with their wings open, because they like to close them when they are resting. The ones that are old and damaged don't mind posing for you, but the perfect ones require a lot of time and patience, until one gets cooperative. These butterflies are pretty on both sides.

The upper wings ("up") are actually black. But the microscopic structure on the surface of the wings refracts light. The blue color comes from light refractions. A lot of butterflies have this characteristic.

So do some birds, particularly male hummingbirds, but some other birds do, too.

Some butterflies don't sip nectar from flowers. They may prefer rotten fruit or other food. The Morpho is one such butterfly. You won't find one on a flower. But then, they are flying flowers, so you don't really need a flower for them. ;)

A lot of butterflies co-rotate. This is when two butterflies (or sometimes three) will fly in circles around each other. I THINK it's mating behavior, but I'm not sure. Blue Morphos do it. Blue Morphos are quite active, actually.

This next picture is a White Morpho, Morpho polyphemus. I see them much less often.

Red Cracker

Hamadryas amphinome. Central America.

This is another butterfly that refracts blue light. The dark blue in the pattern would be black without it. It is called a Red Cracker because the underwings ("un") have red in them. Obviously, in this photo, this color cannot be seen.

The reason I was able to bring out the refracted color is because I used the fill flash. I showed the photo to one of the volunteers and she was surprised, because she had never seen this before.

Here's the underside, where the red can be clearly seen.

Tailed Jay

Graphium agamemnon. India and Australia.

The Australians often have a different name for the various butterflies, from the rest of us. They call this one a Green-spotted Triangle.

Tailed Jays grow from egg to adult in only a month, so they may produce seven or eight broods a year. They are very active flyers. They particularly like the nectar from Lantana, Ixora, Mussaenda, and Poinsettia. They mostly lived in the treetops of dense forests, but have been found in urban areas more recently.

This is another butterfly that doesn't like to sit with its wings open. This particular butterfly was very cooperative, and spent quite awhile on the ground first, before flying to this rock. I was actually photographing down on him from above. Butterflies will sit on the ground because they take drinks of mineral-rich water from little wet spots and puddles on the ground. This is called "puddling."

We are told to watch where we step, because at any given moment, there may be a butterfly on the path, puddling.


Dryas iulia. This is almost a local butterfly. They live in Mexico, and I have seen them a couple of times in Arizona. It has been found occasionally as far north as Nebraska.

This butterfly likes Lantana and Scandix. It also likes the tears of caymans, so it has the ability to irritate their eyes to get these alligator-like creatures to produce tears. Caterpillars like passionflowers. Both the color and the taste are not attractive to birds.

As you can see, this butterfly likes flowers.

There are a number of species of butterflies that live in the Americas that have long wings that extend outwards like this. They are called "Longwings". Most of them belong to the genus "Heliconius".

Zebra Longwing

Heliconius charithonius. Another near native. They are found mainly in central and South America.

The caterpillars of this species also like passionflowers. The adults eat both nectar and pollen. It is uncommon for butterflies to like pollen. Zebras often like to sleep in clusters of up to 70 butterflies.

The flower is Lantana (Lantana horrida). I don't know all the flowers, but when I do, I will tell you.

Tips on Photographing Butterflies

Using an SLR

Some folks take butterfly pictures with little point and shoot cameras. I don't know how good these are. My sole experience is with the Pentax cameras I have owned. I currently have a K20D digital SLR. For butterfly photography, I have a Tamron 1:1 90mm macro lens. I bought that some years ago, and it was expensive. You can use other setups, but they might not give as good results, either. The Tamron is strictly a hand focus lens.

In the past, before I could afford this lens, I reverse-mounted my 55mm lens with four closeup filters ganged in with it. You have to have a reverse mount to do this. The depth of field isn't quite as good, but you can still take nice pictures with it. Later, I will show you some of the pictures I took that way.

There are a couple of secrets to taking good butterfly pictures in an exhibit. The first thing to remember is that most butterflies that live in an exhibit get used to people and you can approach them closer than you can in the wild. In some exhibits, they will let you use fill flash. This makes a HUGE difference. Fill flash is when you cause your flash to light up with minimum strength. This is a setting in the camera. When you get really close, you don't want a lot of flash, because it will wash out all the colors. The flash doesn't seem to bother the butterflies, although I did see one jump once. When you can use fill flash, stop down your lens all the way. Mine goes to f22. I also use a shutter speed of 180, which is what the flash is designed for. I usually have to slow down my ISO considerably as well.

To get good focus on the butterfly, it is best if you can get the entire butterfly at an angle in which the plane will be parallel to your sensor.

With this setup, you can get clear pictures of the butterfly and a nice bokeh in the background. Take as many pictures as you reasonably can (your camera will have to recharge the flash, which will space the pictures) then choose the best. This is the secret to good photographs in any situation.

Sapho Longwing

Heliconius sapho. They are from, you guessed it, central and South America.

Heliconius longwings probably interbreed frequently, and the different color patterns that result have often been classified as different species. Identifying a particular pattern by species can be, ahem, interesting. Like the Julia and the Zebra, the caterpillars like passionflowers.

The blue is refraction.

I will present other Heliconius butterflies as I add new species. I have photos of quite a few different ones.

Clysonymus Longwing

Heliconius clysonymus. Yup, central and South America.

My suspicion about all these butterflies is that these are mostly varieties rather than species. That could also account for the sheer variety in small differences in the pattern.

Hibiscus with Monarch

Danaus plexippus.

You can see by looking at the monarch, that this hibiscus blossom is HUGE. This monarch is normal size. The greenhouse where they keep the butterflies has many gorgeous flowers in it. Most of them are orchids, but there are others as well.

Monarchs are famous for their long-range migration. Sometimes a given migration can span several generations of the butterfly. Monarch larvae like to eat plants that make them taste terrible to birds, particularly milkweed. The color pattern warns the birds to leave them alone. Some other butterflies that might taste better have a similar pattern, which also protects them from birds. Males like to puddle in mud puddles and oil stains.

Green-banded Peacock

Papilio palinurus. Asia.

This is another of my favorite butterflies. I got this picture in Boston. They have a butterfly house there as well. Unfortunately, they also keep Chinese Button Quail, which like to harass the butterflies, so many of them are not in excellent condition. But this one was.

After years of looking for a beautiful specimen at the Tucson Botanical Gardens, I finally found one:

Caterpillars like Euodia. The green color is produced by light refraction.

Indian Dead Leaf

Kallima paralekta. Some authorities claim these butterflies are found in India, Malaysia, and Australia. Others say you can't find them in India, but in Indonesia, including Java and Sumatra. Colors on the underside of the wings vary widely between specimens, and some even look like there is fungus growing on the wings. It is all color patterns. The line along the middle of the wings resembles the midriff of a leaf. The markings are one of the best examples of camouflage in butterflies.

As you can see, the "un" side of the wings looks just like a dead leaf. The "up" side is another story altogether.

The blue is refraction.

Costa Rican Clearwing

Greta oto. Central and South America.

Sometimes the butterfly just plain won't sit where you'd like. But this place shows the transparency of the wings nicely.

The transparency is due to the fact that the wings lack the colored scales of other butterflies. Caterpillars and butterflies feast on plants full of alkaloids that make them taste bad to all predators. The same alkaloids are converted into pheromones to attract the females.

Real Macro Photography - Owl Butterfly

Caligo eurilochus. India and Australia.

Sometimes I like to get in real close. This is a detail of the butterfly's "un" wing. In the original photograph, you can actually see the individual scales on the wing. Owls tend to be rather placid, so this is not a difficult shot. They also prefer to rest with wings closed. It seems there were always a half dozen or so resting on a particular tree trunk.

Giant Owl from a Distance

Caligo eurilochus. Central America.

Memnon Giant Owl

Caligo memnon. A cousin, apparently.

Notice the subtle differences in color. These are all refractions: the light blue, and the yellow.

Gulf Fritillary

Agraulis vanillae

The Gulf Fritillary is a local butterfly. I have seen them on a number of occasions. I got these pictures at the Tucson Botanical Gardens.

Common Leopard

Phalanta phalantha

This butterfly, which resembles the Gulf Fritillary so much I get them confused, is from India and Australia.

This butterfly prefers to rest in the sunlight. For food, it likes Lantana, Duranta, Meyenia laxiflora, Gymnosporia montana and thistles.

Atlas Moth

Attacus atlas. Asia.

We can't have photos of butterflies without also including pictures of moths!

I imagine this is my favorite moth, and I never thought I would really ever get to photograph one. This is a female. If you look really closely, you will see that she has four eggs just between the bottom tips of the wings. These moths seemed to lay eggs in the greenhouse regularly; I often saw them. But they were not allowed to hatch. I'm not sure why.

This photo is a closeup of the antennae of a male. The female antennae are much less developed by comparison. Males have smaller wings than females.

This moth and the African Moon Moth below come out of their cocoons without mouth parts, so they cannot eat, and only live a few days. The caterpillars produce silk which is broken into short fibers, and used in India for non-commercial uses. The silk resembles wool and is more durable than that of the silk moth.

The larvae like citrus trees. They stay in the pupa stage for about four weeks.

It is said this is the largest member of Lepidoptera in the world, though the wingspan of the White Witch Moth is slightly longer. The name in Cantonese means "Snake's Head Moth" because of the resemblance to a snake's head.

African Moon Moth

Argema mimosae

While we are on the topic of moths...

Of course, this moth is from Africa. It is similar to the Luna Moth, which I have also photographed. In this picture, the moth is clinging to the back side of the orchid, so that most of its head is not visible. The second photo is a closeup of the head of an African Moon Moth.

African Moon Moths are silk moths. They like to live in sub-tropical bush country. Many different moths produce silk, but most aren't harvested.

Silver-barred Emperor

Charaxes druceanus

Back to butterflies. This one is from Africa. The thing I find most fascinating about this butterfly (and many others) is the way in which these almost gossamer-thin wings can look totally different on one side, from on the other.

Disturbed Tigerwing

Mechanitis polymnia

Central and South America.

When I was observing this butterfly recently, I told the man standing next to me what it was. He wondered why it is called "disturbed". My guess is it's because the pattern isn't strictly like the stripes of a tiger.

Blue Clipper

Parthenos sylvia lilacinus

South Africa, Southeast Asia.

This butterfly comes in several flavors, er colors. I have photos of some of the others that I will post sometime.

Priamus Birdwing

Ornithoptera priamus

Native of India and Africa. They are called "birdwings" because of the awkward appearance in flight, resembling the flight of a bird, or so they say. Personally, I don't think bird flight is awkward. :) There are about 90 subspecies of this butterfly. Some varieties have a pretty blue in the male instead of green.

The first photo is a male resting with wings closed. They almost always rest this way. These butterflies are very active, and when they aren't resting, they are fluttering constantly. This makes getting a photo of the open wings a serious challenge. The next two photos are of the male with wings open, and the last one is the female.

Transandean Cattleheart

Parides iphidamas

As the name implies, these are from Central and South America. These are usually active, in my experience, but on this day, three of them were quite cooperative.

The caterpillars are poisonous to predators because they eat plants of the Aristolochia genus. Females live and reproduce on the edges of forests.

Bamboo Page

Philaethria dido

Central and South America. These butterflies tend to be more placid, and more likely to pose with wings open. As you can see, these resemble the Malachite, and it took me awhile to be able to distinguish between them reliably. This is a common problem, because they differ only in wing pattern.

The caterpillars like passionflowers.


Siproeta stelenes

For comparison, of course. :) Central and South America. We are supposed to get these in Arizona occasionally, though I can't say I have ever seen one in the wild.

As I suspected, it was named after the mineral Malachite because of the wing color (and Malachite is a gorgeous mineral, by the way.)

Adults have a rather omnivorous diet: flower nectar, rotting fruit, dead animals, and bat dung.


Opsiphanes sp.

Another view of the butterfly that opens this lens. Central and South America. I have only caught a glimpse of the top side of this butterfly, but I think the underside is prettier anyway.

The various Owl butterflies are so named because the spots on the underside of the wings remind people of owl's eyes. They evidently also remind birds of this; hence, birds leave them alone.

Great Orange Tip

Hebomoia glaucippe

Asia and Australia. This is a fairly active butterfly. Their markings differ a little depending on whether the individual came from a wet season or a dry season brood.

Blue Mountain Swallowtail - Papilio ulysses

From India and Australia, this one can be a bit of a challenge to photograph, because they are active. Also, most of the time, the butterfly exhibit doesn't have any.

Mocker Swallowtail - Papilio dardanus

I first saw this butterfly in Boston. It took awhile before I identified it, partly because it isn't quite as brightly colored as some other butterflies. You find this one in Africa.

Rusty-tipped Page - Siproeta epaphus

aka Chocolate Malachite. That's the name I first learned for it, and my brain won't let me switch gears! :( It is classified with the Malachite, so there must be some resemblance, but for colors, definitely not! From Central America.

Here is the underside of the Rusty-tipped Page.

Cruiser - Vindula arsinoe

This is the female. I actually think she's prettier than the male. From India and Australia.


On the other hand, the male is pretty, too.

Flame-bordered Charaxes - Charaxes protoclea

This is the male. This is another species where I think the female is prettier. I have not yet photographed a female. From Africa.

Giant Charaxes - Charaxes castor

As far as I know, the Charaxes genus is found only in Africa.

Paper Kite - Idea leuconoe

Not colorful, but with a beautiful pattern. India and Australia.

Helena Birdwing - Troides helena

India and Africa.

Tiger with Tails - Consul fabius

This one seemed to prefer to rest with wings only partly open.

Red Lacewing - Cethosia biblis


I think the underside is prettier. Fortunately, they prefer to sit with their wings closed.

Common Longwing - Heliconius erato luscombei

As I have mentioned, these longwing butterflies interbreed freely. Personally, I think they're all the same species, just different varieties. After all, we don't call a black poodle a different species from a white poodle. :)

We're back in Central and South America. :)

Lurcher - Yoma sabina

India and Australia.

Brown Clipper - Parthenos sylvia philippensis

India and Australia. Three different color patterns classified as the same species, with subspecies name attached.

Archduke - Lexias dirtea

Female. India and Australia.


Grey Pansy - Precis atlites


More to come! Please drop by again.


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