Do You Know a Monarch When You See One?
Practice With Monarch Butterfly Identification

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Every spring and fall we rely on hundreds of observers to track the monarch's migration. These observers expand the eyes and ears of scientists in ways not possible before the Internet. But observations must be accurate in order for the data to be valid and useful. Can you identify a monarch from its look-alikes?

You are about to see some look-alike species that people confuse with monarchs. You will be able to take a careful look — then learn some identification tips from the experts. Butterflies move quickly! Do you think you will know a monarch when you see one?

Is this a monarch? Put your mouse over the picture and another butterfly will appear. One is a monarch and the other is a viceroy. Can you find differences?

Did you notice the stripe across the Viceroy's hindwings? That stripe is the best field mark to look for. Viceroys are also smaller than monarchs, and they are more skittish when they fly.

Quick! Count the monarchs! How many monarchs do you see in this picture? Put your mouse on the monarchs and see if you're right. The monarchs are circled in red. The other kind of butterfly is a "queen."

When their wings are closed — or when they are flying — it can be hard to tell monarchs and queens apart. Move your mouse back and forth over the image and compare the queen and monarch closely. Describe the differences you see. These species are close relatives. They really do look alike, just as people who are closely related often do.

Here is the queen butterfly with its wings opened. Now it is easy to see that this butterfly is not a monarch.

Sometimes people say they are seeing monarchs but we know they are mistaken. This map illustrates one example. What are the clues?

Here are the clues that tell us people are not seeing monarchs:

  • It's unusal to see more than 1-2 monarchs at a time in the spring, especially in California.
  • The Painted Lady butterfly does appear suddenly by the millions in the spring, especially in the west.

When they are side by side it's easy to see that a Painted Lady is much smaller than a Monarch. But these tiny butterflies can trick people when they are flying. They have other relatives that fool people too. (All are "Vanessa" butterflies.) Sometimes people say they see "baby monarchs" migrating. But that's impossible! Do you know why?

A baby butterfly is a larva. (It cannot fly!) An adult butterfly does not grow. So it's impossible to see a baby monarch butterfly flying!

While there are monarch look-alikes, please don't be afraid to report what you see! We will help you with identification using other clues. Your location, the time of year, the habitat nearby, and even the butterfly's behavior can be used.

Learn More!

  • Viceroy: The butterfly that is trying to fool you!
  • Queen: The monarch's relative, but "It's a cinch" to tell them apart says Texas naturalist, Carol Cullar.
  • Painted Lady: Another migratory butterfly that you can track.

Draw a Butterfly Drawing forces us to observe closely!

Keep Practicing! Try to name the butterflies below. Then put your mouse over the monarch to find out if you're right.

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