Florida's Elegant Ruddy Daggerwing Butterfly
It is delightful to be graced with the presence of one of Florida's common butterflies, Monarchs, Gulf Fritillaries and Zebra Longwings. But, excitement is on a whole other level when we catch a glimpse of the lesser celebrated and more obscure types. This post is about the Ruddy Daggerwing (Marpesia petreus) butterfly, its life stages and where to find one.
These butterflies are primarily found in south Florida with a northern range roughly from Bradenton on the west side to Port St. Lucie on the east. They are more common in the southern part of the peninsula. Occasionally one may stray into northern Florida, Texas or Arizona, but for the most part, they are found high in the tree-top hammocks of south Florida.
Florida's elegant Ruddy Daggerwing is common in Broward county. Their caterpillars host on the Moraceae family of trees (Ficus) which includes common fig, wild banyan and strangler fig (Ficus aurea). Here's the challenge: Ficus trees are very large and though they are common, it can be hard to spot larvae on them since the leaves are so high and out of sight. I raised them and set them free when I lived there.
Another issue for those of us planting butterfly habitats by incorporating host plants in our landscape is that while strangler fig trees are common and even native to south Florida, they are also invasive. It is not recommended to plant them and nurseries don't even sell them. They often start out as epiphytes on a host tree. In time, they choke out their host and thus the name "strangler." They get very large, grow rapidly and can be quite unruly. If you have a small yard, planting one is not advised!
That said, many of you likely already have a Ficus or know of one nearby, so check out the leaves and see if you find these super interesting caterpillars on it. The next three photos show them in different instars (growth phases) so they look slightly different.
As is the case with most of Florida's butterfly (not moth) caterpillars, those prickly looking projections on the larvae don't sting. They are simply there to look scary. The wild pattern is not like any other butterfly caterpillar in the Sunshine State.
You may know that I am obsessed with strange butterfly facts, and here is a fun one about young Ruddy Daggerwing caterpillars, they build frass chains with their excrement. Frass chains are made of poop and they extend outside of the leave as in the photo above and below. The larvae constructs it and crawls out onto the edge of it to avoid predation. What a great idea! I suppose nobody wants to eat you when you are standing on your own poop sculpture.
Once the caterpillar has its fill of Ficus leaves, the Ruddy Daggerwing will go into the classic "J shape" posture, as is customary for butterflies in the Nymphalidae family. From there it will molt into the chrysalis.
If you are the type of weirdo, uh I mean enthusiast, that likes to raise butterflies inside for observation, Ruddy Daggerwings are simple to rear. It is the same process as with Monarchs and other butterflies, and while this post won't detail that, there is plenty of info in my books about how it's done.
The Ruddy Daggerwing chrysalis is gorgeous. It is lime green and has more (harmless) spikes that look wicked cool.
Eventually, as the adult Ruddy Daggerwing matures inside, the pupa becomes transparent and you can see the critter all folded up and ready to pop. This is how you know it is really close to emerging.
A beautiful adult will emerge. Notice how the underside of the wings resembles a dead leaf. That is a fabulous camo trick.
The bottom of their head, abdomen and thorax are bright white, but the top is orange. The upperside of the wings is orange with dark markings. They have long dagger-like tails, but don't confuse them with Swallowtails (Papilionidae). They are in the Brushfooted family (Nymphalidae) which means their front two legs are folded up near their thorax making them look like they only have four legs, but all insects have six legs.
And that, my friends, is the life story for Florida's elegant Ruddy Daggerwing butterfly. So, next time you hear someone complain about the nuisance of Ficus tree roots destroying their underground pipes, making a mess or strangling out a palm tree, you can remember that most stories have a silver lining. If it weren't for Ficus trees, we wouldn't have Ruddy Daggerwing butterflies!