North American Ecology (US and Canada)
The Gulf fritillary, Agraulis vanillae, is a widespread, geographically variable neotropical species that occurs from the south central U. S. to southern South America. Lamas (2004) lists a second, undescribed species in the genus from Peru.
The Gulf Fritillary is a resident throughout the southern United States down into Mexico, Central America, the West Indies, and South America.
Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native ); neotropical (Native )
occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
Global Range: (>2,500,000 square km (greater than 1,000,000 square miles)) Southernmost United States south through Mexico to Argentina. Also present in Hawaii. Sometimes emigrates north to Great Lakes and Rocky Mountains. Range greatly expanded with cultivation of host plants however not freeze hardy.
The Gulf Artillary has pointed forewings and a wing span of 2.0 to 2.5 inches. The upperside of the butterfly is bright orange with brown and black markings. The underside is a deeper color with distinct elongated silver spots. Females are darker with heavier markings.
Other Physical Features: ectothermic ; bilateral symmetry
The Gulf Fritillary prefers subtropical second growth, woodland edges, brushy fields, and city gardens.
Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; forest ; rainforest ; scrub forest
Comments: Open fields, canyons, or even city gardens, with Passiflora hosts, particularly Passiflora incarnata. Not really in forest but does occur in more open southeastern pinelands. Permanent populations rquire virtually frost-free climate.
Non-Migrant: No. All populations of this species make significant seasonal migrations.
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
The Gulf Fritillary feeds on Maypops and other passion-vine species. Passion Flower is the larval foodplant.
Flowering Plants Visited by Agraulis vanillae in Illinois
(observations are from Fothergill & Vaughn; this butterfly is the Gulf Fritillary)
Asteraceae: Aster subulatus sn (FV); Fabaceae: Trifolium pratense sn (FV)
Number of Occurrences
Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.
Estimated Number of Occurrences: 81 to >300
10,000 to >1,000,000 individuals
Life History and Behavior
Early stages: Eggs are yellow and approximately 1 x 0.8 mm (h x w). Females place eggs singly on leaves of the host plant. Mature larvae are approximately 1.2 cm long. Caterpillars are gregarious in small numbers (Brown, 1981).
Agraulis vanillae larva. © David Cappaert.
Agraulis vanillae larva getting ready to pupate (left, © Jerry A. Payne, USDA ARS), pupa (center, © Katja Schulz), freshly eclosed butterfly (right, © Jerry A. Payne, USDA ARS).
Agraulis occurs in scrubs and fields. Usually individuals fly rapidly. Females mate multiply, and adults roost at night in loose groups, lower than 2 m above the ground in grass blades and leaves (Brown, 1981).
Hostplant: Agraulis is polyphagous, and larvae feed primarily on plants from the subgenera Granadilla and Distephana (Passifloraceae) (Brown, 1981).
Males search for freshly emerged females. The eggs are laid singly on passion-vines. The egg of the Gulf Fritillary is yellow, oblong, and ribbed. Mature larvae are a dark brown or black with red-orange stripes and rows of complex black spines.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Agraulis vanillae
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Agraulis vanillae
Public Records: 13
Specimens with Barcodes: 68
Species With Barcodes: 1
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure
Reasons: Widespread and common in Neotropics. Tolerates disturbance and uses open areas.
Degree of Threat: D : Unthreatened throughout its range, communities may be threatened in minor portions of the range or degree of variation falls within natural variation
Global Protection: Many to very many (13 to >40) occurrences appropriately protected and managed
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
No documented examples.
No documented examples.
The Gulf fritillary or passion butterfly (Agraulis vanillae) is a bright orange butterfly of the family Nymphalidae and subfamily Heliconiinae. That subfamily was formerly set apart as a separate family, the Heliconiidae. The Heliconiinae are "longwing butterflies", and like other longwings this species does have long, rather narrow wings in comparison with other butterflies. It is not closely related to the true fritillaries, however. It is the only member of genus Agraulis.
The Gulf fritillary is a medium to large butterfly, with a wingspan of 6–9.5 cm (2.4–3.7 in). Its underwings are buff, with large silvery spots. It takes its common name from its migration over the Gulf of Mexico.
The Gulf fritillary is commonly seen in parks and gardens, as well as in open country. Its range extends from Argentina north through Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean to the southern United States, as far north as the San Francisco Bay Area on the west coast. It is occasional farther north.
The larva is a caterpillar which grows to approximately 4 cm (1.6 in) in length. It is bright orange in color and covered in rows of black spines. The spines are soft to the touch and do not sting, but the larva is poisonous if eaten. The larva feeds exclusively on species of passionflower, such as maypop (Passiflora incarnata), yellow passionflower (P. lutea), and running pop (P. foetida).
Black and orange stripes warn predators of the toxicity of the caterpillar which protects it from predators. Many birds avoid it. Some specialized insects such as paper wasps and pragmatists have been observed feeding on it, however, and larger caterpillars sometimes eat smaller ones. This species belongs to the "orange" Batesian mimicry complex.
The cultivation of passionflowers has enabled the Gulf fritillary to extend its range, into California, for example.
When the time comes for the caterpillar to create its chrysalis it turns a greyish color and begins to spin a silk-like substance into a ball on top or against a malleable surface. It then attaches its rear end to the "silk" lump and hangs upside down in a "j" position. By small contractions of the muscles it begins to shed its skin and head revealing a soft pinkish tan form. Quickly the soft form hardens and becomes greyish brown. The chrysalis stays in this form for eleven to twenty-one days. After that period of time, a small crack begins to form at the tip of the chrysalis revealing the butterfly's head. It continues to slowly move down through the bottom of the chrysalis until its legs are free to cling onto the shell of the chrysalis and pull itself the rest of the way out. Much like the monarch butterfly, it begins to pump the fluids from its bulging abdomen into its shriveled wings. When its wings are fully expanded it releases excess fluids from its abdomen. For the next ten to fifteen minutes it stays still and allows its wings to dry. Finally it fans its wings out and takes flight.
- Rauser, C. L., & Rutowski, R. L. (2003). Male-specific structures on the wings of the Gulf fritillary butterfly, Agraulis vanillae (Nymphalidae). Journal of the Lepidopterists' Society 57(4): 279–283.
- Whan, P. W., & Belth, J. E. (1992). Second Ohio record of Agraulis vanillae (Lepidoptera, Nymphalidae). Ohio Journal of Science 92(4): 121–122.
- Ross, G. N., Fales, H. M., Lloyd, H. A., Jones, T., Sokoloski, E. A., Marshall, B. K., et al. (2001). Novel chemistry of abdominal defensive glands of nymphalid butterfly Agraulis vanillae. Journal of Chemical Ecology 27(6): 1219–1228.
- Pinheiro, C. E. G. (1996). Palatability and escaping ability in Neotropical butterflies: tests with wild kingbirds (Tyrannus melancholicus, Tyrannidae). Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 59(4): 351–365. HTML abstract
- Darby, Gene (1958). What is a Butterfly. Chicago: Benefic Press. p. 36.
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