Merry Christmas Butterfly


December 23, 2008
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I thought that for this month I would share with you a very special butterfly called the “Christmas Butterfly.” I have no idea why it is called this; it’s not green or red and it doesn’t sing carols or light up, but it’s beauty does make you smile the way that Christmas does! I actually got a phone call a few years back about why this is called the Christmas butterfly. I had never heard of this festive name, so I searched and searched for an explanation but came up empty.

The scientific name of this butterfly is Papilio demodocus. (You can see a great picture of one here.) The other two common names of this species are the orange dog and citrus swallowtail. This butterfly is native to Africa and is a common pest of citrus trees. We used to receive a similar species of butterfly, Papilio demoleus, from the Philippines, but the USDA has completely taken it off any permit because it is such an awful citrus pest. If that butterfly was to get out of the Butterfly Center it would most likely die, but it could also completely demolish our citrus groves here, so better to be safe than sorry!

The Christmas butterfly is a member of the Swallowtail family, Papilionidae. Caterpillars in this family are super cool because they all have this weird organ behind their head that they use for defense called the osmeterium. This organ protrudes from the back of the caterpillars head when it is threatened to ward predators off. It is forked, sticky, smelly, and reddish-orange in color. The picture below is of a Thoas swallowtail caterpillar, Papilio thoas, taken here inside the Butterfly Center when some caterpillars unexpectedly showed up on one of our plants.

The Christmas butterfly caterpillar starts off brownish black and white in coloration and it very closely resembles bird droppings. As the caterpillar gets larger, it changes to a bright green color. The chrysalis has awesome camouflage. It looks just like a small branch on a tree that a stick was broken off of.

Well, that’s about all I have this time. I hope everyone enjoys the holiday and has a Merry Christmas Butterfly!!!

Bug-crazy? Learn more:
Check out this video to Meet the HMNS Entomologists.
Have you noticed – where have all the bugs gone?
Learn how to pin a butterfly.

Laurie
Authored By Laurie Pierrel

As an entomologist at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, Laurie’s main duties are receiving and processing exotic butterfly pupae, releasing adult butterflies into the conservatory, and sharing her love and knowledge of insects with school children through a program called “Bugs on Wheels.”

2 responses to “Merry Christmas Butterfly”

  1. Junior says:

    I recently noticed these exact caterpillars on my grapefruit tree. Two have already spun cocoons. Should I let them be or remove them.

  2. Erin M. says:

    You should definitely let them be! They can do no harm at this point and they will have the most success emerging in their natural habitat. It’s wonderful that your grapefruit tree has become a host for such a beautiful native butterfly! I’m sure you will see many in the future!

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