Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Arthropoda

Class: Insecta

Order: Lepidoptera

Family: Nymphalidae

Genus: Nymphalis


Nymphalis antiopa, the Largest butterfly of North America, is referred to as the Mourning cloak butterfly. In the United Kingdom, they are acknowledged as Camberwell beauty. Mourning cloaks are known as spiny elm caterpillars in their premature stage of life. Their caterpillar form is black having small white spots and branched spines. The upper wings of the mourning cloak butterfly are reddish-brown with a thick border of yellow on the outer edge. There are a few vibrant blue spots in the black submarginal border which is inside the yellow border. Morning cloaks are very huge butterflies having wingspans of ten to fifteen centimetres. The lifespan of a Mourning Cloak is very high, typically eleven to twelve months. These butterflies are very strong flyers as they may be discovered very far away from their authentic range.


The mourning cloak butterflies are generally found in North America but also discovered in the northern part of Europe and Asia. Kimball (1965) cited an anonymous report (1913) that says spiny elm caterpillars were already seen in a red sorrel plant at Alachua County, Florida, however, the citation turned out to be wrong. The first mourning cloak observed in Florida was at Alachua county in 2011. Fifty mature caterpillars were trying to climb down a large sugar Berry tree. It was the first evidence of mourning cloak breeding in Florida, also the first intensity of mourning cloak feeding on sugarberry trees. Mourning cloak butterflies are virtually found in all habitats like cold mountainous areas, the Northern part of South America, warm Asian countries and a few found in Japan. Some migrant butterflies arrive in the United Kingdom in Autumn and summer but their quantity is very low. There is no record for mourning cloak breeding in the UK as wet winters stop them from surviving for a long time.


Mourning cloaks can be found in moist woodlands, forests, parks, gardens, sunny glades, mountains that contain their host plant.

Mourning cloak butterfly host plant

[willow, elm, hackberry, mulberry, cottonwood, poplar, rose, birch and hawthorne]

Host plants for the larvae of monarch butterflies are - 

In Salicaceae family willows (Salix spp.), including exotic willows; poplars (Populus spp.)

In elm family Ulmaceae (Ulmus spp.) 

In hackberry family Celtidaceae (Celtis spp.) 

Many more other species from a wide variety of other families are also used as host plants. Mature larvae often move from the host plant to another plant for pupation, these plants are sometimes mistaken as the host plant.

Mourning cloak food

Food of adults- Adult butterflies feed tree sap, rotten fruits. It can also wander from flower to flower to eat flower nectar. Food of caterpillars- Caterpillar of mourning cloak butterfly feeds leaves of willow, elm, hackberry, mulberry, cottonwood, poplar, rose, birch and hawthorn. 

Mourning cloak butterfly adults

The upper surface of the mourning cloak is reddish-brown having a sub-marginal border of black with blue spots and a yellow marginal border. The ventral side of the wing is black with a whitish-yellow marginal border.

Mourning cloak caterpillar

The spiny elm caterpillar is the larva stage of the mourning cloak butterfly. Their black body is covered with small spines and small whitish spots throughout the body. There is also a series of red spots through the back of the body and the prolegs are also red. They feed leaves of elm, hackberry, mulberry, cottonwood, poplar, rose, birch and hawthorn but don't do any significant damage to the host tree. The caterpillar is seen in spring in Some parts of the country and some second brood seen in late summer. There are some of the rarest butterflies which overcome winter in the larval stage.

Mourning cloak pupa

Chrysalis of the mourning cloak butterfly is brownish grey. Two red-pointed spikes protrude out of the pupa’s lateral side of the region. They also have tubercles, a beak-like structure, and a pair of horns from the head. The size of the pupae is nearly 0.8 inches. The terminal end of the pupa is attached to a silk pad by the cremaster.

Mourning cloak eggs

Eggs are whitish but they become darker before hatching.

Mourning cloak butterfly life cycle

Mourning cloak undergoes complete metamorphosis like all other butterflies. Egg →Larva →Pupa→Adult Mourning cloaks known to lay their eggs as ring clusters before on the terminal twigs of the host plant, before leaves bud out. Host plant selection is very important because it is the only food source for the caterpillars. Newborn caterpillars will group until they shed their skin. Their shedding of the skin occurs four times in a process of development, called ecdysis. A fifth skin shed happens to make a fully grown caterpillar. The next stage is to morph into pupa and then cocoon that a brownish-grey chrysalis develops which will hang from the stem. This stage allows for resting and development. Metamorphosis takes nearly 15 days and the chrysalis emerges into an adult butterfly. Mourning cloaks use endocrine mechanisms to regulate female-specific protein synthesis, oogenesis, and male and female reproductive gland development. Juvenile hormone is involved in the regulation of oogenesis and development of the male and female reproductive glands in the mourning cloak butterfly.

Mourning cloak mating system

Mourning cloak butterfly exhibits polygynous mating behaviour where a male mates with multiple females in one breeding season. The male butterflies either use a display site to attract females or fly to search for the widely dispersed females that process is called scramble competition polygyny. The mourning cloak butterflies display territorial behaviour in which they depend on desirable areas which have a high probability of females or either good resources. These desirable areas increase the reproductive success of the male. Having desirable locations that females want to visit increase males ability to attract more females. Location of choice may include - sunny perches near ravines, wood margins, parks, ponds, canyons, gardens, around stream edges or in lakes which males can perch and defend for multiple days. Spring is the beginning of their mating season when females find host trees and start laying eggs. Adult butterflies were first seen in early summer. They enter a dormant state similar to hibernation in summer. Exhibition of diapause is a suspension of development for some environmental stimuli. They will stop diapause once some of the butterflies start migrating in September and October. Then they overwinter and restart their mating cycle.