Mourning Cloak Butterfly – Nymphalis antiopa

Mourning Cloak Butterfly – Nymphalis antiopa
Live adult butterflies photographed in the wild at Winfield and West Chicago, Illinois
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Mourning Cloak Butterfly

The common name for this species refers to its resemblance to a traditional cloak worn when one was mourning the death of a loved one. The scientific name is derived from both Latin and Greek; Latin: Nymphalis – of, or pertaining to a fountain, Greek: Antiopa – wife of Lycus, King of Thebes. It may appear in these photos that this butterfly only has four legs, but this is not the case – it has six, only the front pair are greatly reduced, appearing hairy and brush like. This is the reason members of this family, the Nymphalidae, are commonly known as "brush-footed butterflies".

The species is only rarely found in Great Britain. The Brits call it "Camberwell Beauty," as it was first discovered near Camberwell in the 1700s.  Another old name was "Grand Surprise". The Mourning Cloak was adopted as the state butterfly of the State of Montana in 2001.

Mourning cloaks are some of the very few butterflies that can survive our winters here in the American Midwest. This specimen has awakened from its winter diapause and is tapping an energy source, tree sap, which is available before any of the usual suspects have started operations. Overwintered specimens have a tattered, been-through-the-wars look I greatly admire. As summer approaches, one rarely sees the new generation, as their frenetic activities carry them high into the forest canopy; many's the time I've spied them patrolling lofty places amidst the trees, sailing and darting about looking for rivals and mates.

The larval stage of the mourning cloak is commonly called the spiny elm caterpillar. The caterpillars are purplish-black with white specks and a row of orange to red spots along the back with branched spines circling the body (below), and ultimately grow to 2 inches long at maturity.

Spiny Elm Caterpillar
Spiny Elm Caterpillar Photo Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service,

These cats often feed in large groups. It is common for them to completely defoliate one branch before moving to the next. They prefer the leaves of elm and willow, but you may also find them on a variety of other hardwood trees including birch, hackberry, sugarberry, linden, cottonwood, and poplar. There are two generations per year. Control: Although common, these caterpillars usually do not develop in high enough numbers to cause much damage. Numerous parasites and predators, including parasitic wasps and some birds, help keep spiny elm caterpillar populations under control. Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki (Btk) is effective against young larvae [2].

Mourning Cloak - Nymphalis antiopa
Brushfoot Butterflies seem to have only four legs, as the front pair (of six total) are almost vestigial and rarely visible.

Mourning Cloak Butterfly
Mourning Cloak's brush-like forelegs are held tight to the thorax.
Family Nymphalidae – Brushfoots or brush-footed butterflies encompass approximately 3,000 species worldwide, of which 160 or so live in or visit North America. This is a very diverse family of butterflies, and they occur everywhere except the polar ice caps. Their unifying characteristic is the reduced forelegs of both males and females. The habit of holding the forelegs close to the body is shared with many other insects, including bumblebees, flies, bugs and beetles.

  1., Mourning Cloak
  2. National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects & Spiders (North America), Chanticleer Press 1980
  3. Eric Eaton & Ken Kaufman, Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America, Hillstar Editions 2007
  4. Arthur Evans, National Wildlife Federation Guide to Insects & Spiders of North America
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Order Lepidoptera, which contains both butterflies and moths, includes at least 125,000 known species including 12,000 in North America. Butterflies are revered for their brightly colored wings and pleasing association with fair weather and flowers.
Learn to identify many of the American Midwest's common species through descriptions and large diagnostic photos of live, wild specimens.
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