Banded orange heliconian butterfly (Dryadula phaetusa) photographed in Gamboa, Panama.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic
  • Looking at the bright orange, black striped wings of the banded orange heliconian butterfly (Dryadula phaetusa), it’s clear how it got its name. With a delicate, fluttering flight this medium-sized butterfly is easy to spot because of its bright colors and preference for open areas.

    Common and widespread from Mexico to Brazil and Bolivia, these butterflies are occasionally seen in Kansas and Texas. Hardly ever in forests, they favor open spaces, including forest clearings, pastures, and riverbanks.

    The banded orange heliconian butterfly has relatively long and broad wings. When resting or basking in the sun, it holds its wings flat. When it feeds on nectar, it usually holds its wings up, revealing the underside. Like many butterfly species, the underwing has a different pattern from the upperwing. Unlike most other species, though, the banded orange heliconian’s underwing looks as eye-catching as the upper wing.

    Scientists believe the butterfly’s bright colors serve as a warning to predatory birds to stay away. But the butterfly is likely a Batesian mimic—a species that imitates the color of similar, more poisonous species but is actually relatively harmless.

    Banded orange heliconian butterflies are most active on warm, sunny days. On cooler, rainy days they typically roost in bushes and low vegetation until the weather improves.

    Males have regular perching places, settling on a log or tree stump near the forest edge. They often will return repeatedly to the same perch after being disturbed. Just before dusk, the butterflies settle under the leaves of bushes, where they spend the night, frequently in small groups.

    The banded orange heliconian butterfly population is secure and under no threat.

    1. What does the banded orange heliconian butterfly eat?

      The larva, the caterpillar stage, eats the leaves of the passion flower vine. The adult butterfly drinks the nectar of the passion, lantana, and other flowers.

    2. What is Batesian mimicry, and how does the banded orange heliconian butterfly display it?

      The naturalist Henry Walter Bates explored the Amazon in the 1840s and 1850s. Over a decade-long stay, he collected and catalogued a wide variety of specimens: birds, snails, beetles, butterflies, and moths. He is known for his discovery of mimicry in animals, where one that is poisonous to its predators is mimicked by another species in order to also avoid predators. For example, the bright colors of the banded orange heliconian butterfly warn potential predators to stay away, even though it’s not really toxic.

    3. What factors contribute to the banded orange heliconian butterfly species survival and success?

      The banded orange heliconian butterfly is considered healthy and under no threat, likely because it does not depend on a habitat or host plants that are under threat. It has a very wide range in areas of South, Central, and North America. It thrives in open areas, so does well in areas that have transitioned from forest to agriculture.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    Batesian mimicry Noun

    form of mimicry in which a harmless species has evolved to imitate the warning signals of a harmful species.

    forest Noun

    ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.

    nectar Noun

    sweet plant material that attracts pollinators.

    predatory Adjective

    killing other animals for food.

    underwing Noun

    underside of a bird's wing or the posterior wing of an insect.

    upperwing Noun

    top portion of a bird's wing.

    vegetation Noun

    all the plant life of a specific place.