Swallowtail Butterflies

Tiger Swallowtail
Tiger Swallowtail

This magnificent family (Papilionidae) of large butterflies is loved by many, and includes more than 600 species worldwide.

Fewer than 30 specifies live in North America.

Swallowtail Butterfly Features and Characteristics

Most (not all) of these large, brightly colored butterflies feature tails on their hind wings.  These tail-like appendages resemble the tails of swallow family of birds, hence their name.

Swallowtails feed on flowers, and can often be found in mud or damp sand where they sip dissolved minerals and salts. They beat their wings rapidly when feeding on nectar, as a balancing technique.

Swallowtail Eggs, Caterpillars and Pupae

The eggs are spherical in shape and pale green in color, and darken over time.

The young caterpillars of Tiger, Black, Spicebush, Anise and Giant swallowtails all appear to be bird droppings.

Caterpillars evolve into incredible colors and some adopt false eyespots (see photo to the right) as a defense mechanism.

Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar
Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar

The caterpillars have an osmeterium, a forked shaped gland that can be extended from behind the head as another defense mechanism. This glad emits a foul smell to repel potential predators. Pupae are generally brown or green.

Swallowtail Butterfly Family Groups

In North America, swallowtails fall into four general groups:

  • Black swallowtails (Papilio)
  • Giant swallowtails (Heraclides)
  • Tiger swallowtails (Pterourus)
  • Pipevine swallowtails (Battus)

Swallowtail Butterfly Life Cycle: Stages and Times

Stage Typical Duration
Egg stage Generally 4 to 10 days, depending on temperature and host plant
Caterpillar (larval) stage 3 to 4 weeks
Chrysalis (pupal) stage 10 to 20 days (except for overwintering pupae)
Adult butterfly stage 6 to 14 days

Swallowtail Butterfly Identification Chart

The identification chart below compares the colors and features of common Swallowtail butterflies.

Swallowtail butterfly identification chart

Photographs of Common Swallowtail Butterflies

Click on any image to enlarge and learn more about a particular Swallowtail species.

Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly (female)

Size: 3.5"-5.5"

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Female Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly near Tyler Texas

Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly (male) missing one tail

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Male Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly missing one tail

Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly (female) with dark dimorphic coloration

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Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly (female) with dark dimorphic coloration

Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly

Size: 3.5"-4.5"

(one line of spots on trailing edge of wings vs two lines on Black Swallowtail)

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Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly

Spicebush Swallowtail Butterflies

Male (left) with green coloration chasing a female with blue coloration

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Spicebush Swallowtail Butterflies

Black Swallowtail Butterfly (male)

Size: 2.5"-4.0"

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Male Black Swallowtail butterfly

Black Swallowtail Butterfly (female)

Size: 2.5"-4.0"

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Female Black Swallowtail

Giant Swallowtail Butterfly

Size: 4.0"-6.0"

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Giant Swallowtail on Milkweed flowers

Pipeline Swallowtail Butterfly

Size: 2.75" - 4.0"

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Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly in East Texas - October 17, 2016

Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly

Size: 2.5" - 4.0"

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Palamedes Swallowtail Butterfly

Size: to 3.5" to 5.5"

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Palamedes Swallowtail Butterfly

Anise Swallowtail Butterfly

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Two-Tailed Swallowtail Butterfly

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Pale Swallowtail Butterfly

Size: 2 1/2" - 3 1/2"

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Pale Swallowtail Butterfly

Indra Swallowtail Butterfly

Size: 2.5" - 3.0"

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Indra Swallowtail

Polydamas Swallowtail Butterfly

Size: 3 1/2" -  4 1/2"

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Polydamas Swallowtail Butterfly

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