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Giant Swallowtail
Papilio Cresphantes
giant swallowtail
Giant swallowtail, photographed at Jupiter Inlet Outstanding Natural Area, Jupiter, Palm Beach County, in April 2018.
giant swallowtail  

The giant swallowtail butterfly, Papilio Cresphantes, more than lives up to its name. It can grow bigger than some birds.

Giant swallowtails are in fact the largest butterfly to inhabit North America, with an average wingspan of more than four-and-a-half inches. Large ones can exceed six inches and approach seven.

They're found throughout all of Florida's 67 counties and most of the eastern United States, ranging as far north as southern New England (and Canada), across the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains, into the southwest, eastward through the Gulf to the Atlantic. They're found in Mexico, through Central America to South America.

Giants are distinguished from most other swallowtails found in Florida by the yellow-gold band that cuts horizontally across the forewings. Schaus' swallowtail is similar, but it's rare and limited only to the Florida Keys. The giant has yellow marking on the "tails" of the hindwings, versus all black for Schaus'. Their undersides are mostly yellow, with black accents on the hindwings, and a band of blue, red and black that's hinted at when the butterfly is viewed from above.

In South Florida, giant swallowtails are active year-round. In the northern part of the state, they're "in flight" all months but January and February. In the northern extremes of their range, they're active May through September.

giant swallowtail

Giant swallowtails nectar on a fairly wide selection of flowers, including, azalea, bouganvillea, goldenrod and swamp milkweed. They'll sometimes sip liquid from poop.

Host plants for their offspring are limited to members of Rutaceae, the citrus families, including Florida natives such as wild lime, Hercules Club, sea torchwood and hoptree. Also on the list: sweet orange. Giant swallowtail larvae, called orangedogs by some, are voracious eaters and can inflict serious damage to young orange trees, even kill them, but mature trees normally can withstand the damage.

Females lay a single egg on the top side of a leaf. While some butterfly species have bright color schemes to protect their larvae, or caterpillars, giant swallowtails take the opposite tack. They look like bird poop. Seriously. The resemblance is especially strong when they first hatch. Older larvae look like the head of a small snake.

The larvae will go through five stages of development, or instars before pupating and finally emerging as an adult. The chrysalis, or cocoon, will hang at an angle and look like a part of the plant to which it's attached.

Giant swallowtails are members of Papilionidae, a family of about 650 butterfly species, including all swallowtails.

Photographs by David Sedore
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without their express permission.