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American Lady Butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis)

Detailing the physical features, habits, territorial reach and other identifying qualities of the American Lady Butterfly

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Image Credit: Arch Baker
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The American Lady's enormous geographic range covers all three countries on her continent - just not all at the same time of year.

Updated: 01/02/2022; Authored By Staff Writer; Content ©www.InsectIdentification.org
The American Lady Butterfly is a member of the Brush-footed butterfly family. It is related to the Painted Lady, the Red Admiral and the West Coast Lady. The front legs are very short and covered with little hairs or bristles, like that of a hairbrush. Because their front legs are so short, they sometimes look as though they only have four legs.

The overhead and underneath coloring of this species is so different that one may think they are looking at two different butterflies. The dorsal (top side) of the forewings and hindwings are orange, black and white. There is a tiny white dot on the middle part of the orange forewing. The hindwings have a row of black dots near the bottom edge. The two largest of these have blue centers. These are most visible when the wings are spread open and flat. If the butterfly's wings are closed, one can see that its ventral side (underneath) is quite patterned. This side of the wings are a mosaic of gray, white and brown with a flash of bright pink on the forewings. The hindwings each have two large eyespots that are useful for identification.

This butterfly prefers sunny, open habitats like fields, canyons and meadows. In the summer months, they can be found in the southern parts of Canada and northern U.S.. Come winter, they migrate to the warmer weather in Mexico and the southern U.S..

Caterpillars of the American Lady eat cudweeds, everlastings, and plants in the aster family. Its body is tubular and black with thin, yellow bands that form rings around its body. Reddish-brown or white spots are interspersed between set of the yellow bands. Bristles protrude from those spotted areas of the body. Two or three generations of this species of butterfly can be born every year.

General Characteristics
Capability, Shape, Texture/Pattern, Benefits, Dangers
Flying insect icon
Patterned insect icon
Pollinator insect icon


Taxonomic Hierarchy
Species Breakdown
Kingdom: Animalia
  Phylum: Arthropoda
    Class: Insecta
      Order: Lepidoptera
        Family: Nymphalidae
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          Genus: Vanessa
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            Species: virginiensis
Identifying Information
Size, Colors, Features
Scientific Name: Vanessa virginiensis
Category: Butterfly or Moth
Size (Adult; Length): 44mm to 54mm (1.73" to 2.12")
Colorwheel Graphic Colors: white; black; brown; gray; orange; pink; blue
Descriptors: eyespots; lady; four legs; flying; pollinator

Relative Size Comparison
Typical Size Between 44mm (1.7in) and 54mm (2.1in)
Lo: 44mm
Md: 49mm
Hi: 54mm
Territorial Map*
U.S., Canada, and Mexico
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Canadian territory of Alberta graphic
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Canadian territory of Quebec graphic
Canadian territory of Saskatchewan graphic
Territory map graphic of the country of Mexico
Contiguous United States shape map layer graphic
Prince Edward Is.  
* MAP NOTES: The territorial heat map above showcases (in red) the states and territories of North America where the American Lady Butterfly may be found (but is not limited to). This sort of data is useful when attempting to see concentrations of particular species across the continent as well as revealing possible migratory patterns over a species' given lifespan. Some insects are naturally confined by environment, weather, mating habits, food resources and the like while others see widespread expansion across most, or all, of North America. States/Territories shown above are a general indicator of areas inhabited by the American Lady Butterfly. Insects generally go where they please, typically driven by diet, environmental changes, and / or mating habits.


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