When a large, orange butterfly, beautifully gliding over flowers comes, the first thought would usually be, hey, that is a monarch butterfly. But not all large, orange butterflies are monarchs, and it is important to know the distinction because monarchs may be beautiful, but they can have a bit of poison too.
It is understandable to be curious about monarchs and part of this curiosity should be knowing which ones are just lookalikes too. In this post, some of the best monarch lookalikes are featured so read on.
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What does a monarch butterfly look like?
Monarch butterflies are considered as one of the most popular, most studied, and most recognizable butterfly species in the world. They are famous for their annual migration, leaving the United States for Mexico and other parts of South America during the winter.
Monarchs are known for their bright orange color, prominent black abstract and line markings and white spots on the edges. At maturity, they only weigh half a gram with a wingspan that could reach 5-inches. Male and female monarchs show physical dimorphism which means that male monarchs have bulkier bodies and are larger to look at in the field compared to females.
Aside from these, they also have a tentacle-like pair of antennae. These antennae reach at least 2-inches before their metamorphosis. You can also identify monarchs in their chrysalis phase as they sport a seafoam green color with yellow spots around the edges. People fondly call these their gold studs.
Monarch butterfly facts
Before we dive right in, there is a lot of cool stuff that you must know about these beautiful butterfly species. Here are some of the most notable facts about the monarch butterfly.
- Monarchs are ancient. Archives suggest that they have been around for over 200 million years.
- They have a sophisticated flapping behavior. The average butterfly has 20 wing flaps per second, but monarchs only flap theirs at 5-12 flaps per second.
- They are highly migratory. Annually, they travel for 3000 miles starting from the northeast USA and then ending in Southwest Mexico. This migration happens for four generations of monarch butterflies.
- They are poisonous to predators. They store a toxin in their bodies causing cardiac arrest, paralysis, or death for those who eat them. This is because their main food source at caterpillar stage is the milkweed.
- Monarchs eat their sheds. Right after they hatch from the egg, they eat their eggshells. And in the five times that they will shed their skin in their lifetime, they would shed all those sheds again.
- They are just caterpillars for two weeks, but they say that in that span of time, they will grow two thousand times their original weight.
- It has an interesting scientific name. Monarchs are taxonomically called Danaus plexippus which translates to ‘sleepy transformation’ because of its slow transformation from chrysalis stage to butterfly phase.
- Monarch butterfly is the state insect of Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, and Texas.
Monarch butterfly symbolism
Butterflies have a wide symbolism, but the popular monarch butterfly holds specific ones because of its exceptional beauty and graceful flapping. Here are some cross-cultural symbolisms of the monarch butterfly.
- Native American: Among the specific appearances of monarchs would be in the dolls of the Hopi tribe. The monarch is painted in these dolls and are given as gifts of good health and abundance. Among the Blackfoot, monarchs symbolize restful sleep and peace.
- Christianity: In the Christian tradition, monarchs are the symbol of rebirth, insight, foretelling, and spiritual transformation as have been referenced in various religious texts. Monarchs are also believed to be sent by angels to send an important or divine message to someone who sees it.
- Mexicans: Perhaps, it is with the Mexican tradition that monarchs hold a significant symbolism with. Annually, millions of monarchs arrive in Mexico exactly on the week of Dia delos Muertos or day of the dead. They are associated with the souls of their deceased loved ones. Some even dress like monarchs and they use a lot of orange marigolds to honor the dead.
- Chinese: In the Chinese tradition, monarchs are considered as bearers of light and positive energy. They are released during important events such as weddings for guidance, abundance, evolution, and fertility.
Other symbolisms of monarch butterflies depend on the nature of how they are seen. For instance:
- Dead monarch butterfly: it means new beginning or embracing a new life vibration to grow.
- Monarch landing on you: it is rare for monarchs to land on people so when this happens, it symbolizes that you are threading the right path.
- Monarch following you: this symbolizes that you have a light and positive aura and that you are most likely to succeed in your chosen endeavors.
- Monarch entering the house: When it enters your home, it symbolizes rooting and establishing security.
Butterflies that look like monarchs
Now, down to what matters most, what would be the butterflies that look like monarchs? There is not much to mention, but the ones listed here are very notable ones so let us start digging in.
To the untrained eye, viceroys can be easily mistaken for monarchs because of their color patterns and habits. When it comes to color patterns, they are almost identical. Their only difference would be the thick, black line crossing over the hindwing.
In terms of size and wingspan, viceroys are smaller but that is hard to spot while on the field. In terms of flight, viceroys have more erratic flaps while monarchs just glide.
As for migration, viceroys are not migratory compared to monarchs. As a matter of fact, by the time migration starts for monarchs, viceroys are just peaking their mature phase. Of all the listed ones here, viceroys are perhaps the most monarch looking butterflies out there.
2. California tortoiseshell
They are sometimes confused for monarchs because of their orange wings with black spots, white blotches, and black edges. But their fringed wings, faded orange color and somewhat tattered look set them apart from monarchs. They are also migratory but instead of Mexico and South America, they overwinter around Oregon.
Habit-wise, they are kind of unique because they prefer to nectar among fir trees. As caterpillars, they would lay their eggs on snowbrush and not on milkweed so that should be your first indicator.
3. Red Admiral
This orange butterfly is mostly mistaken by newbies and the untrained because it is orange colored. But as it matures, it becomes faded plus its wing underside is a combination of brown, red, orange, and mottled blue. Also, it has a wingspan that is way smaller than monarchs at just 1-2-inches.
Their winter route is more sporadic as it includes as far north as Canada and as far south as Southern Texas. And when they nest their eggs, they would most likely lay them on nettles.
4. Painted lady
This one looks more like the Red Admiral or the Queen but because it has a bolder orange color, prominent block blotches on each wing, black spots, and white dots at the edges, it is mistaken as monarch. Its underside is the defining factor though because the colors range from brown, black, and mottled gray.
In many parts of the world, the painted lady is also called the urban butterfly because it is adaptive and found anywhere. It is also called the thistle butterfly because it lays its eggs on thistles. They have a wider range when they overwinter. This includes more temperate countries in Africa and Asia.
5. Western Tiger Swallowtails
This is a large and standout butterfly with orange and black colors, making it a monarch lookalike. However, it has a more faded orange color, yellowish spots on the edge instead of white and its black veins are smaller than monarchs.
Their chrysalis is brown and not seafoam green like monarchs. They are also not picky nesters. You would find their caterpillars in a variety of hosts, including willows, cottonwoods, birches, cherry, magnolia, and ash wood. They are also seen year-round in some locations. They get their name for overwintering on the West Coast.
6. Queen butterfly
This one is another close lookalike of the monarch especially when their wings are closed. They did the same bright orange color, white spots, and prominent black likes and veins. Most of all, they share the same love for milkweed. But they differ in terms of range since Queen butterflies can be seen all around the US including the southern parts, stretching to North Dakota.
Their caterpillars also look the same when it comes to appearance, only Queen caterpillars have extra pairs of black spikes. The only difference is that the caterpillar of Queen is paler and smaller in size. Like Viceroys, Queens are also most likely spared from predators because of their uncanny resemblance to monarchs.
7. Soldier butterfly
It is also known as the tropical queen and is comparable to monarch butterflies because of their orange color, black borders and veins, and white spots on the edges. Like the monarch, they also flap their wings slowly yet gracefully.
Their prime difference, perhaps, would be their native regions since soldiers are found in both hemispheres of America.
The difference between the two could be found first, in the color of their caterpillar. Soldiers are black and white with yellow segments and its chrysalis is more of bright green rather than seafoam green. They are also distinguishable for their smaller wingspan. Other than these, soldiers are not migratory.
Why do Viceroys look like monarchs?
Viceroys are very skillful and natural survivors. They mimic monarch butterflies not just because they are extremely beautiful but because monarchs feed on milkweed which can be deadly to predators. As such, knowledgeable predators would not dare eat monarch butterflies. Observing this, viceroys mimic monarchs in terms of habit, color patterns, and pollination to avoid being eaten.
Are monarchs poisonous?
Yes. In their caterpillar phase, monarch butterflies only feed on milkweed as their food source. Interestingly, all the toxic cardenolides found in milkweed are stored in the monarch’s system even after they metamorphose into adult butterflies.
This toxin can be fatal to a range of animals especially grazing animals and pets. It induces paralysis, cardiac arrest, and eventually, death. Some species of milkweed can be poisonous to humans too when ingested.
Why do monarchs gather on trees?
This behavior is called clustering and you would mostly find them doing this from fall to winter. The scientific explanation to this is that when they are in groups, they could share body heat, thus, protecting each other in their migration route. Also, it helps them in warding off predators along the way.
How many eggs can a female monarch lay?
Compared to other butterfly species, monarchs have greater longevity. However, they are not as prolific layers as other insects or compared to other butterflies for that matter. Female monarchs lay just over a thousand eggs in their entire lifetime.
Do all monarchs really go to Mexico to overwinter?
This is a common misnomer so to set that straight, no, not all monarch butterflies reach Mexico to overwinter. Some of them find roosting sites along the Rocky Mountains and around California. But it would be safe to say that millions of monarchs find their way to Mexico in time for the celebration of the Day of the Dead.
Why do monarchs prefer Mexico for overwintering?
Because they need to have a stable supply of food during the winter. They need dew or water and nectar to sustain them and with the harsh winter, they would not get that steady supply across North America.
Can monarchs eat other plants other than milkweed?
Monarch butterflies tend to be very exclusive. Nonetheless, other than the milkweed, they are also known to eat just one other plant and that would be sand vine, which, by the way, is also a cousin of milkweed.
Where in the US can one find the largest concentration of monarchs?
It would be in the Midwestern region. According to reports, the Midwest shelters more than 60% of the recorded population of monarchs to date. The reason for this is because monarchs prefer altitudes ranging from 40-45 degrees latitude and at 90-100 degrees longitude.
However, to be fair, it should also be noted that monarchs thrive where milkweeds can be found. This means that they can niche anywhere in the US.
Are monarch butterflies endangered?
Unfortunately, hundreds of monarch conservation groups emerged in the last decade because of the alarming decrease in the population of monarch butterflies.
Many environmentalists attribute this loss to climate change especially in South America where they overwinter. Seemingly, the effect of deforestation, mining and logging have stripped them off of available flora to depend on during their migration.
In conclusion, the interest over monarch butterflies is endless because it is all-encompassing. From its standout physical appearance, habit, toxicity, annual migration patterns, to symbolism and more, this butterfly does not just fall short at anything.
With these, it is imperative to know which butterflies look like monarch butterflies. You may not spot the differences right away but in time, you can be a monarch butterfly master in the field.