Nymphalis antiopa

Nymphalis antiopa
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Lepidoptera
Family: Nymphalidae
Genus: Nymphalis
Species: N. antiopa
Binomial name
Nymphalis antiopa
(Linnaeus, 1758)

Nymphalis antiopa, known as the mourning cloak in North America and the Camberwell beauty in Britain, is a large butterfly native to Eurasia and North America.

The immature form of this species is sometimes known as the spiny elm caterpillar.[1] Other older names for this species include grand surprise and white petticoat. A powerful flier, this species is sometimes found in areas far from its usual range during migration.

These butterflies have a life-span of 11 to 12 months, one of the most extensive life-spans for any butterfly.[2]

It is also the State Insect of Montana, adopted in 2001.[3]


The North American name "mourning cloak"

In several European countries with Germanic languages, other than Britain, the name for this butterfly literally translates to "mourning cloak", such as German "Trauermantel", Swedish "sorgmantel", Finnish "suruvaippa" and Norwegian "Sørgekåpe". This suggests it is a name which came with Scandinavian or German rather than with British settlers, for whom this species would be considerably less familiar.[4][5]

The British name "Camberwell beauty"

The name originated from the discovery of two individuals at Coldharbour Lane in Camberwell in August 1748.[6] Camberwell is in South London, about three miles south of London Bridge—in reporting this, the author Harris named the species grand surprise or Camberwell beauty (Bretherton & Emmet, 1990). It has been suggested that the "pair" were stowaways on ships bringing timber from Scandinavia.


The mourning cloak butterflies are distributed broadly around the world. They are commonly found in North America and northern Eurasia, as well as in Mexico.[7] Mourning cloak butterflies are prevalent throughout North America. They can usually be found in hardwood forests, though they have been found in virtually all habitats.[8] They may also be found as far as the northern part of South America, though they are typically not seen as frequently in southern states such as Florida, Louisiana, or Texas. They are occasionally seen in the more temperate places in Asia, and a few have even been seen in Japan.[6] However, the mourning cloaks tend to be found predominantly in cold, mountainous areas.[6]

Migrants arrive in Great Britain most years during summer and autumn, but numbers are usually very low. There is no evidence that the species breeds in Britain; it is thought that mild, wet winters prevent them from surviving there for very long. The 'Butterfly Farmer' L. Hugh Newman raised thousands for release at his 'farm' in Bexley, but none were seen the following spring. Specimens stored in his refrigerator for the winter survived however. In a book he said that Camberwell beauty catches in England were suspiciously concentrated around London and Hull and Harwich, all these being ports in the timber trade with Scandinavia, and theorized that they had hibernated in stacks of timber which was then shipped to England, and had not travelled naturally.



Mourning cloak eggs are first laid a pale yellow. These eggs can also be a pale olive-green bordering yellow.[9] Upon further development, the eggs will become red, and finally black, throughout their maturation prior to hatching.[2] The eggs are generally 0.7 by 0.9 mm in size.[6]


The caterpillars are just as striking, with black bodies and a line of red dots running down the back, and dark red legs. The body is covered with black spines, white dots converging on the ends of all the spines.[1] The mourning cloak caterpillars can grow to be up to two inches in length.[2]


Mourning cloak pupae are on average 0.8 inches in length, though they can reach over 2.8 cm in length. They tend to be a tan or brown-gray, with two rows of sharp, red-tipped spikes protruding from the ventro-lateral side of the pupae. The chrysalis has a "beak", tubercles, and two head horns.[6][10]


The mourning cloak butterfly is a large, unique butterfly, with special markings that do not match those of any other butterfly, making it easily distinguishable. It can have a wingspan up to four inches. The dorsal side of its wings are a dark maroon, or occasionally brown, with ragged pale-yellow edges. Bright, iridescent blue spots line the black demarcation between the maroon and the yellow.[2] The ventral side of the wings has grey striations, with the same pale-yellow edges.[6] They are a part of the Nymphalis family, called the brush-footed butterflies due to their hairy front legs. The species does not display any sexual dimorphism.[2]

Reproduction and development

Mating system

Mourning cloak butterflies display polygynous mating behavior, where an individual male will mate with multiple females throughout one breeding season. He will either use a display site to attract females or fly around searching for females that are more widely dispersed in a process called scramble competition polygyny.[11] This means that male mourning cloak butterflies primarily lek, or display territorial behavior, in which they settle and defend desirable areas, such as those that either offer increased probability of females or those that provide ample amounts of good resources.[12] The more desirable territories will be able to increase the males’ chances of reproductive success. Thus, lekking maximizes the males’ ability to attract the most female butterflies, either by being in a prime location to view them or to have a location that females would want to visit.[13] Locations of choice typically include sunny perches near ravines,[12] wood margins, parks, gardens, lakes, ponds, around stream edges,[14] or canyons in which males can perch and defend for multiple days.[13] These locations can be more than an area of 300 square meters.[6] Given the male-male competition for mating, this strategy offers males an ideal location in order to maximize success in territorial protection, and thus mating.[13] Despite the fact that butterflies, particularly the mourning cloak butterflies, have an affinity for perches on high objects, they are not known to display any hilltopping behavior, where male butterflies fly up to perch on hill summits.[14][15]

Spring marks the beginning of their mating season, when female mourning cloaks will find a host plant and begin to lay their eggs. Adult mourning cloak butterflies can first be seen in late spring through early summer. They then aestivate for the summer, where they will enter into a “dormant” state similar to that of hibernation. In concordance with this is the mourning cloak butterflies’ exhibition of diapause,[16] which is a suspension in development in response to certain conditions, such as environmental stimuli. They will break diapause once some, though not all, of the butterflies start to migrate through September and October. They then overwinter, and then restart their mating cycle throughout the spring, from April through June.[7]

Life cycle

Mourning cloaks, like other butterflies, undergo complete metamorphosis.[6] Mourning cloaks are known to lay their eggs as ring clusters around twigs on host plants. This host plant location is vital because it acts as the nutrition source for the young caterpillars. Females are known to have multiple broods,[14] typically up to two to three.[6] The newly hatched caterpillars will group together, until they shed their skin—termed an instar for each shedding. This shedding event occurs four times throughout development in a process called ecdysis. The larvae experience a fifth skin shed to produce a fully grown caterpillar.[6] The next stage in the mourning cloak’s life cycle is to morph into a pupa and then cocoon in a process that encases the creature in a tan or gray chrysalis, which will hang from the stems of grass. This pupa stage allows for resting and further maturation.[2] This metamorphosis takes approximately fifteen days.[17] Following development as the chrysalis is the emergence of an adult mourning cloak butterfly.[6]

Studies show that the mourning cloaks use endocrine mechanisms similar to other lepidopterans to regulate female specific protein synthesis, oogenesis, and male and female reproductive gland development. Juvenile hormone (JH) is involved in the regulation of oogenesis and development of the male and female reproductive glands in the mourning cloak butterfly.[18]



Mourning cloak butterflies are seen throughout the year because they do not participate in long-distance migration.[19] Instead of migrating, there is evidence that mourning cloak butterflies exhibit overwintering. The adult butterflies will hibernate during the winter. Typical locations of overwintering include tree cavities and underneath loose tree bark. This process is advantageous for the butterflies because they are able to immediately start mating in the spring, rather than having to migrate back prior to mating.[2] They are often one of the first butterflies seen in the spring.[6]



The caterpillars will begin to eat the leaves of the primary host plants upon hatching. They eat a larger variety of primary host plants, such as willow and black willow, American elm, hackberry, hawthorn, wild rose, and poplar. Upon hatching, mourning cloaks are insatiable throughout their development as caterpillars.[2]

Adult mourning cloaks feed on sap and decaying matter, less commonly they are seen nectaring on flowers.[20]


The mourning cloak butterfly faces many predators throughout its development. The mourning cloak’s eggs can be eaten by predators such as beetles, true bugs, ants, beetle larvae, wasps, assassin bugs, and mites.[17] Some of the butterflies’ major predators include praying mantises, assassin bugs, dragon flies, and vertebrate predators such as birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals.

Defense mechanisms

An anti-predation mechanism the mourning cloaks have employed as adult butterflies is camouflage. To do this, the butterflies fold their wings back when attached to trees as their folded wings will provide camouflage against the dark backdrop of the trees.[2][6]

An additional anti-predation tactic used by the mourning cloaks is to join together with other butterflies in a perch and fly menacingly towards their attackers—most often birds or other butterflies.

Further defense mechanisms include loud clicks when the mourning cloak flies away from a predator.[21]

To protect themselves from the cold weather of their habitats, mourning cloaks will find areas under direct sunlight. This behavior, in conjunction with their darkly-colored wings, allow for maximum heat absorption.[6]

Newly hatched mourning cloak caterpillars can display selfish behavior, such as siblicide, by eating non-hatched eggs.[17] The larvae also group together for the duration of their development, preventing some predation by numbers.[11] The larvae and pupae can also respond to disturbances by twitching simultaneously this may be performed as a defense mechanism.[6]


Mourning cloak butterflies are not known to be predominant pollinators, since their primary food source are deciduous trees rather than flowers. However, they still can occasionally act as pollinators. Because of this, they do not offer hugely significant benefit to humans. In fact, they can often pose problems because, as specified previously, these larvae are known to destroy much of their host plant through clustering behavior.[6][22]

Relationship to people


Mourning cloak butterflies can be pests. Some experiments have shown that the mourning cloak larvae will completely defoliate ornamental trees, as well as trees in nursuries, plantations, and parks. Some areas that this damage has been documented has been Oregon and Canada.[23][24] Immature willow and poplar are often completely damaged due to the larvae, though forest trees tend not to be affected.[23]


Mourning cloak butterflies have been a part of some epigenetics experiments testing to determine if the environment affects certain butterfly phenotypic characteristics. Scientists hypothesized that traumatic heat or cold shocks “during a critical period of its development can cause profound changes”. The first experiments occurred in the 1890s. The mourning cloaks were temperature shocked at specific times in their development, which led to differences in pupae color. It was later learned that the color change was due to hormonal changes in response to varying temperatures.[25]


Mourning cloak butterflies are protected by law in Switzerland and Austria,[26] though they generally have an increasing trend regarding population density in Finland.[27] They also assume "safe" status in the Czech Republic.[28] In general, the mourning cloak butterflies find areas that have experienced fuel breaks to be more inviting,[29] presumably because the fuel breaks increase the amount of open space and clearings available to the butterflies, which is a more ideal habitat for these butterflies to live in.[27]



  1. 1 2 "Spiny Elm Caterpillar". Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic. Iowa State University. Retrieved 8/10/2011. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 "Mourning Cloak". Study of Northern Virginia Ecology. Fairfax County Public Schools.
  3. "Mourning Cloak Butterfly". Montana State Butterfly. State Symbols USA. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
  4. Savela, Markku. "Nymphalis". Retrieved 15 November 2013.
  5. Eeles, Peter. "Camberwell Beauty". Butterfly Conservation. Retrieved 15 November 2013.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 Vanessa, Fonesca. "Nymphalis antiopa". Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
  7. 1 2 Glassberg, Jeffrey (1999). Butterflies Through Binoculars: The East. Oxford University Press.
  8. Latimer, Jonathan (2000). Butterflies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  9. 1 2 Belicek, Joseph (12 February 2013). "Notes on the Holotype of Nymphalis antiopa hyperborea" (PDF). Retrieved 22 November 2013.
  10. Hall, Donald W., and Jerry F. Butler. "Mourning Cloak - Nymphalis Antiopa (Linnaeus)." Featured Creatures. University of Florida, May 2009. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.
  11. 1 2 Davies, N., Krebs, J., & West, S. (2012). An introduction to behavioral ecology. (4th ed.). West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
  12. 1 2 Rutowski, Ronald (1991). The Evolution of Male Mate-Locating Behavior in Butterflies. The University of Chicago Press. pp. 1121–1139. JSTOR 2462511.
  13. 1 2 3 Rutowski, Ronald (1984). "Sexual Selection and the Evolution of Butterfly Mating Behavior" (PDF). Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera. 2. 23: 125–142. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
  14. 1 2 3 Bryant, Peter. "Mourning Cloak Butterfly". Natural History of Orange County, California. University of California, Irvine. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
  15. Scott, James (1970). "Hilltopping as a Mating Mechanism to Aid the Survival of Low Density Species" (PDF). Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera. 4. 7: 191–204. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
  16. Kopper, Brian; Shengquiang Shu; Ralph Charlton; Sonny Ramaswamy (2001). "Evidence for Reproductive Diapause in the Fritillary Speyeria idalia (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae)". Annals of the Entomological Society of America. 3. 94: 427–432. doi:10.1603/0013-8746(2001)094[0427:EFRDIT]2.0.CO;2. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
  17. 1 2 3 "The Virtual Nature Trail at Penn State New Kensington". Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
  18. Herman, William S., and Diane C. Bennett. "Regulation of Oogenesis, Female Specific Protein Production, and Male and Female Reproductive Gland Development by Juvenile Hormone in the Butterfly,Nymphalis Antiopa." Journal of Comparative Physiology B 99.4 (1975): 331-38. Print.
  19. Dennis, Roger (May 2000). "Progressive bias in species status is symptomatic of fine-grained mapping units subject to repeated sampling" (PDF). Biodiversity and Conservation. 10: 483–494. doi:10.1023/a:1016602309983. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
  20. Hall, Peter W.; Jones, Colin D.; Guidotti, Antonia; Hubley, Brad (2014). The ROM Field Guide to the Butterflies of Ontario. Toronto, Canada: Royal Ontario Museum. pp. 284–285. ISBN 978-0-88854-497-1.
  21. Pyle, Robert (1981). The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies. Knopf; Chanticleer Press ed edition. ISBN 0394519140.
  22. Stamp, Nancy (March 1980). "Egg Deposition Patterns in Butterflies: Why Do Some Species Cluster Their Eggs Rather Than Deposit Them Singly?". American Society of Naturalists. 115 (3): 367–380. doi:10.1086/283567.
  23. 1 2 Hopkin, A; Cheliak (1996). "Pest Problems on immature Poplar and Willow in Ontario and Their Potential Threat to Plantations". Canadian Forest Service Publications: 113–118.
  24. Morrison, H (1940). "Seasonal History of Hop pests on Oregon Hops during 1938". Journal of Economic Entomology. 1. 33: 70–71. doi:10.1093/jee/33.1.70.
  25. Davies, Hazel (2008). Do Butterflies Bite?: Fascinating Answers to Questions about Butterflies and Moths (Animals Q&A). Rutgers University Press.
  26. Feltwell, J. 1986. The Natural History of Butterflies. New York: Facts on File.
  27. 1 2 Saarinen, K.; Lahti, T.; Marttila, O. "Population trends of Finnish butterflies (Lepidoptera: Hesperioidea, Palilionoidea) in 1991-2000". Biodiversity and Conservation. Kluwer Academic Publishers-Plenum Publishers. 12 (10): 2147–2159. doi:10.1023/A:1024189828387. Retrieved 22 November 2013.
  28. Konvicka, Martin; Monika Maradova; Jiri Benes; Zdenek Fric; Pavel Kepka (September 2003). "Uphill shifts in distribution of butterflies in the Czech Republic: effects of changing climate detected on a regional scale". Global Ecology and Biogeography. 12 (5): 403–410. doi:10.1046/j.1466-822X.2003.00053.x. Retrieved 22 November 2013.
  29. Huntzinger, Mikaela (September 2003). "Effects of fire management practices on butterfly diversity in the forested western United States". Biological Conservation. 113 (1): 1–12. doi:10.1016/S0006-3207(02)00356-7. Retrieved 22 November 2013.
  30. Layberry, Ross. "Possible Subspecies of the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)" (PDF). Ontario Lepidoptera 2009. Retrieved 22 November 2013.

Further reading

External identifiers for Nymphalis antiopa
Encyclopedia of Life 163165
ITIS 188597
NCBI 171592
Also found in: Wikispecies
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