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Can You Tell a Viceroy from a Monarch Butterfly?

Beware of Imposters
As you search for the most wanted butterfly this spring, beware of an impostor! There's another butterfly out there that's disguised as a monarch.

Viceroy butterflies look exactly like monarchs to the untrained observer. Viceroys "mimic" monarchs in appearance. This is a strategy to avoid predation.

How Mimicry Works
As you know, monarch caterpillars eat milkweed. There is a white substance in the milkweed that contains a chemical which is toxic to many animals--but not to monarchs. This toxin carries over to the adult, and predators know to avoid eating monarch butterflies because of this poison. Because viceroys look so much like monarchs, they avoid being eaten too!

As we track the monarch butterfly migration each spring, we are always concerned about accurate identification.

  • For example, how can we be sure people are not reporting the first viceroy they see?

Learn How to Tell a Viceroy from a Monarch Butterfly
Do some research! Pull out your field guide to butterflies and make sure you can tell the difference between monarchs and viceroys. Then place a call to your local nature center and see if they can help you answer these questions:

  • What are the best fields mark to distinguish between a monarch and a viceroy?
  • Find out when viceroys are first seen in the spring where you live.
  • Where do viceroy butterflies spend the winter?
  • At what stage of their life cycle do they overwinter, as an egg, larva or adult?

Did you try it? Now see what the experts say.


Education Standards

Monarch Butterfly and Viceroy Butterfly

Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed. The white, milky substance in milkweed is toxic to many animals--but not to monarchs.

This poison carries over to the adult butterflies.

Predators avoid eating monarch butterflies because of this poison.

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