Swallowtail Butterflies Identification Guide

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picture of an Indra swallowtail butterfly

Papilionidae, or the swallowtail butterflies, large butterflies characterized by extended tail-like appendages, divide into two subfamilies, Parnassiinae, Papilioninae.

Parnassians a wide ranging subfamily, fly over over much of the northern hemisphere, with five recognized North American species. Most species share some physical characteristics. The majority have white color wings highlighted by black and/or red markings. Their wings are semi-translucent, and contrary to swallowtail butterfly trends, their wings are often tailless.

While Papilioniae or the group commonly called swallowtail butterflies, divide into a handful of genera, almost two-thirds of the species belong to the Papilio genus. Most people associate the approximately forty North American Swallowtail species with the Papilio genus. The picture at the top of the page shows the Indra Swallowtail (Papilio indra), a predominantly western species.

Finding swallowtails can be an easy task in the southern most areas of the United States. Close to one-half of all swallowtail species can be found visiting gardens, sometimes only occasionally, in South Texas and South Florida. Throughout the rest of the United States, a small number of them show up around flower gardens during the summer months.

Papilio Swallowtails

picture of an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (Papillo glaulcus) comes in two different forms, a yellow and a dark form.

picture of the dark version of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly

Here’s the dark form.

picture of a pale swallowtail

The remaining swallowtail species also have a limited geographical range, and therefore the number of species present in any area usually leans to the low numbers. The Pale Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon) in the picture, for example, has a range limited to western North America.

picture of a giant swallowtail butterfly

With a wing span approaching four inches, it’s difficult to miss the Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) as it flutters around flowers across the south.

Swallowtail Caterpillars

picture of a swallowtail butterfly caterpillar with eye spots

Swallowtail caterpillars also stir the lenses of butterfly photographers. Often big and colorful, or down right zany looking, with eye spots like the specimen in the picture.