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Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

Detailing the physical features, habits, territorial reach and other identifying qualities of the Black Swallowtail

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Adult and larval Black Swallowtails may be so abundant because they have great defensive strategies: excellent mimicry and an acrid discharge.

Updated: 03/31/2022; Authored By Staff Writer; Content ©www.InsectIdentification.org
The Black Swallowtail looks almost identical to the pungent-tasting Pipevine Swallowtail. This mimicry is a good defense against predators. The caterpillar of the Black Swallowtail also has a defensive organ called an osmeterium. This "Y" shaped, fleshy organ is normally hidden, but will protrude if the caterpillar is threatened. It can then emit terpenes, an organic chemical that smells quite foul and discourages would-be predators from eating the caterpillar.

The body of the Black Swallowtail is black with rows of small white dots running down the length of it. The dorsal (back) view displays black forewings edged in two rows of white dots. Two larger spots are close to the edge. The smaller, black hindwings also have two rows of white dots, but an iridescent blue is sandwiched between them. Each hindwing sports a bright orange and black eyespot at the bottom near the body. The edges of the hindwings are scalloped with white inside the curves. A long extension forms a 'tail' on each wing. Most of the desert populations are more yellow in color, while other populations have less color.

Black Swallowtails can be found in gardens, meadows, forests and other habitats. Adults drink flower nectar and are attracted to fennel plants and flowering herbs like dill. Females lay eggs in spring and caterpillars emerge. Caterpillars eat the leaves of pipevines, Dutchman's pipe, and snakeroot as well as dill, carrots and parsley plants. They form a chrysalis on a stem or branch and tie it to that stem with a single strand of silk. It overwinters in the chrysalis, which turns from green to brown as it ages. Adult butterflies emerge in the spring.

General Characteristics
Capability, Shape, Texture/Pattern, Benefits, Dangers
Flying insect icon
Helpful insect icon
Shiny insect icon


Taxonomic Hierarchy
Species Breakdown
Kingdom: Animalia
  Phylum: Arthropoda
    Class: Insecta
      Order: Lepidoptera
        Family: Papilionidae
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          Genus: Papilio
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            Species: polyxenes
Identifying Information
Size, Colors, Features
Scientific Name: Papilio polyxenes
Other Name(s): Parsley Swallowtail
Category: Butterfly or Moth
Size (Adult; Length): 67mm to 89mm (2.63" to 3.50")
Colorwheel Graphic Colors: black; yellow; orange; blue; white,red
Descriptors: flying; helpful; tails; speckled; shiny; metallic

Black-Swallowtail Video(s)

A Black Swallowtail taking nectar on a windy day.

Relative Size Comparison
Typical Size Between 67mm (2.6in) and 89mm (3.5in)
Lo: 67mm
Md: 78mm
Hi: 89mm
Territorial Map*
U.S., Canada, and Mexico
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Prince Edward Is.  
* MAP NOTES: The territorial heat map above showcases (in red) the states and territories of North America where the Black Swallowtail 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 Black Swallowtail. Insects generally go where they please, typically driven by diet, environmental changes, and / or mating habits.


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