Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Befuddled by Black (Swallowtails)

When we encountered these eastern black swallowtail caterpillars down by the pond in early July, we made plans to share photos of the adult butterflies in a subsequent post.
 As common as the eastern black swallowtail is in this neck of the woods, we figured to bring you that update within a day or so of  the original post. 
Two full moons and thousands of photographs later, we still had no photo of the adult black swallowtail to share. So Papa Jim stepped forward with a solution. "Bring your camera and come on over to our place. We've got plenty of black swallowtails on the flowers out front."
Problem solved?

Not exactly.
As it happened, most of those black-colored swallowtail sightings from which we had constructed the notion that the eastern black swallowtail was "common" were not actually eastern black swallowtails. There were, instead, many black-colored swallowtails, as well as large black-colored non-swallowtails, a sampling of which we have assembled for your viewing pleasure...

The lovely creature perched on Julie's hand in this photograph (above) is not even a swallowtail, although at a glance it could certainly be confused for one.  No, this is the red-spotted purple.

How about the magnificent black and blue swallow-tailed creature pictured above? Is this our elusive quarry? No, but it sure could have fooled me! This is, in fact, a "black phase" female tiger swallowtail. Pictured below is a yellow tiger swallowtail for comparison.

Third time's the charm, right?! This must be our eastern black swallowtail, pictured below!
Nope. Not even close. Much too large and not enough blue. 
This is instead the palamedes swallowtail. 

In this spot on this particular afternoon, the palamedes were quite abundant, and the two individuals below put on quite a dancing exhibition for the camera.

Males competing, or mates a-courting? This intriguing display presents us with another excellent learning opportunity, but the answer to that question will have to wait until our quest for the true black swallowtail is complete.

One parting glance at our aerial acrobats, then we turn our lens to other subjects...

And yes, at last, our quest is at an end. This must be the eastern black swallowtail pictured below. It looks just exactly like the example we found on the internet!

Well, maybe not exactly...hold on...not so fast! The quest is not yet over. Note the forward-most curve of orange spots on the underside of the hindwing. There is a blue intrusion between the second and third orange spot from the bottom of the wing. Alas, the swallowtail pictured above and below is not our "common" eastern black swallowtail, it is actually the lovely and talented spicebush swallowtail.

Tired of all these false alarms? Frustrated by the wealth of black swallowtail lookalikes? How about we take a quick break and admire a most wonderful tiger swallowtail tile created by our friend and fellow butterfly enthusiast, Meredith Heywood of Whynot Pottery. The perfect gift from my parents on the occasion of my recent 46th birthday, and the first anniversary of Hoot Owl Karma. The picture does not do it justice, but hopefully you get the idea. Thanks, Meredith!
And now, we conclude the saga of the swallowtails...

Papa Jim was right. He did indeed have (at least one) black swallowtail on the flowers out front.

The orange eyespots on the innermost rear edge of the hindwings are the defining characteristic which distinguishes the eastern black swallowtail from all those other black swallowtails.

Ironically, the one black-colored swallowtail missing from our photo gallery is the one most responsible for all this confusion, the pipevine swallowtail. Toxins from its host plants make the pipevine poisonous to predators, so the other black-colored swallowtails, including our elusive friend, the eastern black swallowtail, gain protection from predators by mimicking its appearance.

Thanks for staying with us through all the tortuous twists and turns of this post, and we hope that you've learned a thing or two along the way. 

 Eastern Black Swallowtail (Female) Papilo polyxenes


  1. who are your people?
    I am doing the same thing trying my best to figure out who is who, what is what and wondering as I get it wrong over and over again.
    And, and- they will not be still long enough for me to talk this out with them.
    I poured over the internet the other day to find that I was just as confused after as before.
    This has helped me greatly.
    I am so happy that you like the butterfly tile.
    It made it easier to let her fly off knowing that she was going to a great home. She is my crazy way of mixing them all up.
    Who are your people.... we just want to know.

  2. Thanks again for the comments and encouragement. It'll take a lifetime to get to know just a tiny fraction of "the people" with whom we share this amazing planet, but with each new acquaintance I feel just a bit more at home.