The survival of Viceroy butterflies in all of their life stages is significantly enhanced by mimicry. A Viceroy egg resembles a tiny plant gall. Both larva and pupa bear a striking resemblance to bird droppings. And the similarity of a Viceroy to a Monarch is well known. For years it was thought that this mimicry was Batesian in nature – a harmless organism (Viceroy) mimicking a poisonous (Monarch) or harmful one in order to avoid a mutual predator. However, recently it’s been discovered that the Viceroy butterfly is as unpalatable as the Monarch, which means that mimicry in its adult stage is technically Mullerian – both organisms are unpalatable/noxious and have similar warning mechanisms, such as the adult butterfly’s coloring.
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A plump caterpillar is irresistible to many insect-eating birds, and some of them (notably Viceroys and Giant Swallowtails) have outfoxed their predators by assuming the appearance of bird droppings, which one assumes is a far less appealing meal. They do this using color, pattern, choice of resting place and even position – contorting their bodies to match the shape of bird droppings. The Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) uses this technique during its later larval and pupal stages.
The adult Viceroy butterfly also uses mimicry to enhance its survival, but it mimics another butterfly — the Monarch — not bird droppings. Both the Viceroy and the Monarch are unpalatable and contribute to each other’s protection from birds with this strategy, a relationship known as Mullerian mimicry.
In New England there can be up to three broods of Viceroys, with the larvae of some of the second brood and all of the third brood overwintering and pupating in the spring.
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The Viceroy Butterfly closely resembles the Monarch Butterfly, but is smaller, and has a black line that runs across the veins of its back wings, which the Monarch lacks. While Viceroys don’t contain the poisonous cardiac glycosides that Monarchs do, they do contain salicylic acid due to fact that the larvae feed on willows. This acid not only causes the Viceroy to taste bad, but makes whatever eats it sick. So not only do these two butterflies look alike, but they discourage predators in the same way. This is not a coincidence. The fact that they are both toxic if eaten and are preyed upon by some of the same predators has led to their similar appearance. This phenomenon is referred to as Müllerian mimicry, and essentially it means if two insects resemble each other, they both benefit from each other’s defense mechanism — should a predator eat one insect with a certain coloration and find it inedible, it will learn to avoid catching any insects with similar coloration.