Mexico, USA & Canada
Family - NYMPHALIDAE
The tribe Heliconiini, colloquially known as Longwings, includes 71
species, all confined exclusively to the neotropics.
Heliconiini includes the genera Heliconius,
The 39 Heliconius species are much
studied by geneticists and taxonomists. Many of them produce a
staggering variety of colour forms -
Heliconius erato e.g. produces no less than 29 geographical
forms, each of which corresponds almost exactly in colour and
pattern to a "sister" subspecies of Heliconius
melpomene flying in the same area.
All Heliconius species have elongated
black wings, marked with simple but striking patterns usually
featuring streaks or patches of red and cream, or blue and cream. A
few, such as sara,
wallacei have a metallic blue sheen over the basal area of
both wings. All are characterised by their delicate fluttering
flight, long straight antennae, and fondness for flowers.
is distributed from the southern USA and Mexico to Ecuador, and also
occurs on the Caribbean islands of
Trinidad, Cuba, Haiti, Antigua, Jamaica and the southern USA.
This species is
found in sub-tropical rainforest, forest edge habitats, hammocks,
pastures, and along roadsides at elevations between sea level and
The eggs are laid
either singly or
loose groups of up to a dozen on leaf buds or leaves
of Passiflora or
Tetrastylis ( Passifloraceae ).
when fully grown is white, marked with black spots. Each body
segment bears 6 long black barbed spines, and there is another pair
of similar spines on the head. The chrysalis looks like a dead
twisted leaf. It is ochreous-brown, and possesses a pair of long and
twisted head horns, several curved dorsal spines, and a series of
tiny hook-like spines along the costa of the wing cases. It is
suspended by the cremaster from a stem or leaf.
butterflies are characterised by having a very delicate fluttering
flight, particularly when hovering around flowers. They commonly
nectar at Hamelia,
Lantana and Stachytarpheta.
Unlike other butterflies,
Heliconius females feed on pollen as well
Studies of ethilla have shown that
females deprived of pollen can only produce about 15% of the number of
eggs laid by females that have access to it. This probably applies
equally to other Heliconius species
including melpomene. The pollen from
and Gurania flowers provides amino acids
that can't be obtained from nectar or other sources, and contributes
greatly to the longevity of the butterflies - some
Heliconius species are known to live for
up to 9 months as adults.
Studies have shown that
Heliconius butterflies have home ranges
within which they can memorise the locations of nectar and pollen
sources, host plants and communal roosting sites. They are able to
plan the most efficient route by which to visit all nectar / pollen
sources in the vicinity by using simple calculations akin to what
mathematicians call the "travelling salesman algorithm". Erlich &
Gilbert demonstrated that individual butterflies memorise the location
of particular Psiguria plants, which they
visit daily, following a predefined circuit through the forest.
In the genus Heliconius most species rely
entirely on airborne chemicals to locate mates. Males of
ismenius and cydno are attracted
by pheromones to the pupae of conspecific females. The day before
emergence a female pupa will usually have several males in close
attendance. A frantic battle takes place the instant she hatches, as
the males all struggle to copulate with her, not even allowing her
time to expand and dry her wings. In some other
Heliconius species such as
sara the males don't even wait until the female emerges.
Instead they physically break open her pupa and copulate as soon as
her genitalia are accessible.
adults gather in the late
afternoon to roost communally in groups of up to a 30 on twigs or
tendrils, at a height of about 1-2m above ground level.