Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Species Spotlight: Mourning Cloak


The first butterfly seen in the spring is usually a mourning cloak, Nymphalis antiopa. It is found statewide, and although characteristic of hardwood forests, it can be found in any habitat--forest edges, open woodlands, backyards, and parks. In fact, this species ranges from Europe through temperate Asia to North America, although it is not found in peninsular Florida, southern Louisiana, and south Texas. In England the mourning cloak is known as the camberwell beauty or the grand surprise.

Mourning cloaks are named for the velvety crepelike appearance of their dark purplish brown wings. Along the wings is a yellow border that fades to near-white in older individuals. The undersides of the wings are striated with dark lines that resemble bark, which allows them to blend in. In flight they are powerful and wary and not easily approached unless distracted by feeding.

Mourning cloaks belong to the butterfly family Nymphalidae, one of the largest butterfly families. The familiar red admiral, viceroy, and monarch are also members of this group. The butterflies of this family do not have six working legs like other butterflies. Their front legs have atrophied and are now sensory in function. Only the middle and hind legs are used in walking, so in effect these butterflies are quadrupeds.

While most female butterflies will lay a single egg, the mourning cloak lays hers in groupings of up to several hundred. The eggs are pale yellow and laid in a one-layer cluster around a twig. The caterpillars are black and bristly with white speckles and orange prolegs. A full-grown caterpillar will be two inches in length. Once the eggs hatch, the caterpillars stick together. They will line up side by side, heads aligned along the edge of the leaf, and will eat communally. When disturbed the whole aggregation rears up on back legs and shakes menacingly. The larvae feed on willow, elm, hackberry, and cottonwood. The chrysalis varies from whitish tan to bluish black with pink-tipped bumps. It is suspended head down from a small button of silk.

The adults will emerge in June and July and fly until the onset of cold fall weather. Adults visit and feed on overripe fruit, sap flows, and carrion. They will also take nectar from some flowers. The adults will hibernate in hollow logs and tree holes, temporarily becoming active on warm winter days and then going back to winter quarters when the temperatures drop. In late March or early April the adults will become active and soon start searching for a mate, beginning the cycle again. Thus, giving the mourning cloak the distinction of being our longest-lived butterfly.

Susan Post, Center for Economic Entomology

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