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Butterflies (superfamilies Papilionoidea and Hesperioidea, order Lepidoptera, infraclass Neoptera, subclass Pterygota, class Insecta, subphylum Hexapoda, phylum Arthropoda, kingdom Animalia)

This page provides an introduction to butterfly classification by presenting information on North Carolina's most common butterflies and providing links to pages describing less commonly seen butterflies in North Carolina and most of the eastern US.

There are 35 superfamilies in the Lepidoptera order, and butterflies are members of only two: 1) the "true" butterflies (Papilionoidea) and 2) the skippers (Hesperoidea).   Members of the other 33 superfamilies are considered to be moths.

These classifications constitute valid taxa according to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System.

True Butterflies (Papilionoidea superfamily)

The five families of "true" butterflies are 1) Brushfoots (Nymphalidae), 2) Swallowtails (Papilionidae), 3) Blues and Hairstreaks (Lycaenidae), 4) Whites, Orangetips and Sulphurs (Pieridae), and 5)  the Metalmarks (Riodinidae).  

Brushfoots (Nymphalidae family)

This is the most diverse butterfly family of all in appearance.  However, what they all have in common is something you'll easily overlook: their forelegs are shorter than their other legs.

             
Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae), Fort Macon State Park, Carteret County, NC, 10/18/11 American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis), a medium-sized butterfly is usually common in Piedmont NC in the summer. Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia), Mason Farm Biological Reserve, NC, 8/12/11 Female Pearl Crescent, Mason Farm Biological Reserve, Orange County, NC, 4/24/06.  These small butterflies are abundant throughout the summer in Piedmont NC. Monarch (dorsal view), very worn Monarch (Danaus plexippus), Durham, NC, 10/19/04.  Notice how the hind wing is pale orange, in contrast with most of the forewing.  These are common in NC during the late summer and fall during their migrations to Mexico.              

 

 
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), Durham, 9/6/05.  You can see significant wing pattern differences.  Compare with American Lady above. Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), Southern Pines, Moore County, NC, 11/2/13 Red-spotted Purple, Dismal Falls, Giles County, VA, 6/14/11 Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), Mason Farm Biological Reserve, Orange County, NC, 7/12/10 Viceroy (Limenitis archippus), Durham, NC, 9/14/05.  Compare with Monarch above. Summer form Question Mark, Johnston Mill Nature Preserve, Orange County, NC, 6/9/07.  Medium-sized.  

         
Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis), Durham, NC, 7/28/13 Same Red-spotted Purple American Snout (Libytheana bachmanii), Flat River Impoundment, Durham County, NC, 8/16/13 Meadow Fritillary, Boone Gardens, Watauga County, NC, 6/28/14          


           
Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia), Flat River Impoundment, Durham County, NC, 10/27/11 Mourning Cloak, Mason Farm Biological Reserve, Orange County, NC, 3/18/10 Hackberry Emperor (dorsal), Third Fork Creek Trail, Durham, NC, 9/8/12          

Swallowtails (Papilio genus, Papilionini tribe, Papilioninae subfamily, Papilionidae family)

       
Male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), Durham, 8/20/03.  Some females look similar, while others are blackish, but with the distinctive Tiger Swallowtail stripe pattern.  See these two forms of female Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. Palamedes Swallowtail (Papilio palamedes), Tyrrell County, NC, 9/25/04.  Very fond of swamps, very common on the NC coast, rarely seen inland. Black Swallowtail, Airlie Gardens, Wilmington, New Hanover County,  ovipositing (laying eggs). Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus), Durham, 8/9/04.  This butterfly typically stays in the Deep South, but is occasionally seen in Piedmont NC.        


         
Female Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor), Durham, 8/4/04.  Seen mostly in the NC mountains, much less commonly in the Piedmont. Spicebush Swallowtail, Raulston Arboretum, 8/19/03.          

The Whites, Orangetips and Sulphurs (Pieridae) family

Cabbage White (Pieris rapae,  Pierini tribe and Pierinae subfamily):  Pictured is an adult and a small larva on one of their favorite foods: cabbage.  These butterflies are major cabbage family pests, but are not often seen away from these crops. Cabbage White (Pieris rapae), Durham, NC, 11/5/14 Falcate Orangetip (Anthocharis midea, Anthocharinae subfamily) Male.  These are very common in the early spring (late March and early April in the Piedmont) but are generally not seen at other times.  The females lack orange wing tips. Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme, Coliadinae subfamily), Durham, 5/3/06.  A common butterfly in the Piedmont and mountains of NC, and also farther north.  A significant proportion of these butterflies are albinos, and some look green in late winter in the Piedmont and on the coast. Somehow this eclosing female Cloudless Sulphur got rotated 90 by the thumbnail software.  Third Fork Creek Trail, Durham, NC, 9/12/12 Male Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebus sennae, maybe Coliadinae subfamily), Duke Gardens, 9/17/05.  These abundant summer butterflies fly rapidly, often at high altitudes. Sleepy Orange (Eurema nicippe, maybe Coliadinae subfamily), Little Scaly Mountain, Macon County, NC, 8/19/04.  There is a lot of variation in wing markings for this species.  So much so that I've devoted a whole page to this subject at Sleepy Oranges.      

Gossamer-Winged Butterfly (Blues and Hairstreaks) Family

These small butterflies are easy to overlook unless they land on flowers.

       
Gray hairstreak (Stryman melinus), Mason Farm Biological Reserve, Orange County, NC, 9/2/06 Red-banded Hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops), Flat River Waterfowl Impoundment, Durham County, NC, 8/16/13 Male Eastern Tailed Blue (Everes comyntas), Durham, 6/28/04. Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon), Eno River SP, Old Cole Mill Rd. access, Orange County, NC, 2/28/06. This butterfly had the richest blue of any azure I've seen. Summer Azure Celastrina neglecta), Durham, 5/27/05.        

Skippers (Hesperioidea superfamily, Hesperiidae family)

The other butterfly superfamily, the Skippers, is comprised of one family, the Hesperiidae, which in turn is divided into five subfamilies: 1) Spreadwing Skippers (Pyrginae), 2) Grass Skippers (Hesperiinae), 3) Heteropterinae (Arctic Skippers), 4) Megathyminae, and 5) Pyrrhopyrginae.

Spreadwing Skippers (Pyrginae)

These are relatively large skippers that look somewhat like "true" butterflies. 

       
  Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Boone, Watauga County, NC, 7/19/13 I saw this Long-Tailed Skipper (Urbanus proteus) on Lantana flowers in downtown Bay St. Louis, Hancock County, MS, on 10/7/04.  It's missing its right "tail." Female Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus genus), Penny's Bend Nature Reserve, Durham County, NC, 9/20/05.  There are two species in this genus with nearly identical appearances: the White Checkered Skipper seems to be taking over the territory of the Common Checkered Skipper.  Males have more white on their wings than females. Female Horace's Duskywing (Erynnis horatio), Durham, 6/25/04.  This is a common summer butterfly around here.  Females have more elaborate wing patterns than males. Female Juvenal's Duskywing (Erynnis juvenalis), Eno River SP, Old Cole Mill Road access, Durham County, NC, 4/25/05.  This is a common spring butterfly here.  As with Horace's Duskywings, female wing patterns are more elaborate than that of males.      

Grass Skippers (Hesperiinae subfamily)

Grass skipper identification can be a complex process.  Skippers tend to be sexually dimorphous, i.e., males and females look strikingly different, and change the arrangement of their wings so that only the dorsal ("top" ) or ventral ("bottom" or "side" view) of these wings can be seen from any one angle.  In addition, both wear and the season the adult emerges in can change the skipper's appearance dramatically.  We illustrate this with two species of skippers.

Fiery Skippers (Hylefila phyleus)

       
Male and female Fiery Skippers, Duke Gardens, Durham, NC, 10/20/07.  Ventral view. Female Fiery Skipper, Durham, 9/12/05.  Dorsal view. Male Fiery Skipper, Durham, 6/26/05.  Dorsal view.        

Sachems (Atolopedes campestris)

         
Male Sachem, Duke Gardens, 7/24/05.  A rare mint-condition individual. Dorsal view. Male Sachem,  Mason Farm Biological Reserve, Orange County, NC, 4/29/06.  Dorsal view. Female Sachem, Durham, 8/19/05.  Here, the yellow flower turns the Sachem a yellow-brown.  Ventral view. Female Sachem, Durham, 8/19/03.  Note how the green surroundings turn this skipper's greenish-gray.  Ventral view. Female Sachem, Durham, 6/28/04, on white clover blossom.  Here you have a ventral view of the left wing and a dorsal view of the right one.          

 

2005-2013 Dorothy E. Pugh