Seeing Stripes: The Zebra Longwing Butterfly

The zebra longwing (Heliconius charithonia) is a common resident of the Cockrell Butterfly Center (CBC). This butterfly is easily recognizable with boldly striped yellow and black wings. When visiting the CBC, you’ll often spot them sipping nectar from the flowers and nectar feeders or sunning themselves with their wings spread open. These butterflies have some unique features and behaviors that set them apart form the rest!

Aposematic Coloration

Bright, contrasting warning colors are known as aposematic coloration. They indicate to potential predators of the “unprofitability” of a prey item. The bold yellow and black stripes on the zebra longwing serve as a warning signal to potential predators of the butterfly’s unpalatable and poisonous nature. Zebra longwing caterpillars feed on passion vine (passiflora) leaves and acquire some of their toxins, making them distasteful to predators. 


Bright, contrasting colors warn predators to stay away.

Pollen feeders

Most butterflies can only sip fluids with their proboscis, most commonly flower nectar. Zebra longwings, on the other hand, also feed on pollen. They use their saliva to dissolve the pollen and take in its nutrients. Pollen, unlike nectar, contains proteins and is very nutritious. Pollen feeding is correlated with overall higher fitness. This diet allows zebra longwings to live longer (up to six months) and increases females’ egg production. 

zebra pollen face

You can see pollen on this zebra longwing’s proboscis. Feeding on pollen increases longevity.

Pupal Mating

Male zebra longwings exhibit pupal mating, zebra_longwing_and_chrysaliin which they will mate with a female before and immediately after she emerges from her chrysalis. Males will seek out a female pupae and will perch on it and guard it from competing males. Many males may fight for the opportunity to mate with the yet-to-emerge female. The successful male will insert his abdomen into the softening pupae and copulate with the female. Mating will continue as she emerges and dries her wings. The males will pass a nutrient-rich spermatophore to the female which reduces her attractiveness to future mates. This male (at right) begins mating with the female before she has even emerged from her chrysalis.


This mating pair shows the freshly emerged female still clinging to her chrysalis.

Communal Roosting

Adult zebra longwings roost communally in groups of up to 60 individuals at night. They tend to return to the same roost on a nightly basis. In the late afternoon, zebras can be observed fluttering and basking near their roost site as they slowly gather together for the night. Roosting together provides protection from predators and retains warmth. 


These zebra longwings are preparing for the night by roosting together for safety.

So now you know! These beautiful, brightly colored butterflies are bad-tasting, and long-lived. They have unique mating habits and the snuggle together at night. Something to remember next time you visit the zebras at the CBC!

Visit our butterfly beauties at Primavera through April 7 at the Houston Galleria!

Every year, the Houston Galleria hosts Primavera: a springtime celebration of all things blooming. As in the past, the Museum got in on Primavera this year with a butterfly garden installation:

The Cockrell Butterfly Center staff hits The Galleria for Primavera 2013

Visit our flappers in their fabulous temporary digs through April 7 on the ground floor of Galleria 4, in between Ann Taylor and Gigi’s Asian Bistro.

The Cockrell Butterfly Center staff hits The Galleria for Primavera 2013

Cockrell Butterfly Center Director Nancy Greig (ever-accessorized, below) says we’ve got 20 species hanging out.

The Cockrell Butterfly Center staff hits The Galleria for Primavera 2013Most are rice paper butterflies and longwings, but there are a few lacewings and other beauts in there, as well.

The Cockrell Butterfly Center staff hits The Galleria for Primavera 2013The butterflies are being fed, for the time being, via plastic loofahs soaked in sugar water — the same preferred diet doled out by your average hummingbird feeder.

The Cockrell Butterfly Center staff hits The Galleria for Primavera 2013Want to learn more about butterflies and butterfly gardening? Hit up our semi-annual Plant Sale this April 6 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and learn how to make your own butterfly habitat (greenhouse not included).

The Cockrell Butterfly Center staff hits The Galleria for Primavera 2013

From left, Cockrell staff Lauren Williamson, (THE) Zac Stayton, and Nancy Greig