The gulf fritillary, Agraulis vanillae, is one of the most common and easily identifiable butterflies to inhabit the Sunshine State. Also among the more beautiful.
It is a butterfly of the southern Americas — the southeastern United States is about as far north as it regularly goes. Its range extends deep into South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. It will stray on occasion into the central part of the of the U.S. but rarely farther north.
Gulf fritillaries appear almost like two different butterflies, depending on what position they're in when you look at them. When their wings are folded open, as seen in the bottom photographs, they're predominantly orange with black lines and streaks and three white spots on each of the forewings. When the wings are folded upward, as in the top photo, the butterfly appears more brown, with prominent silver streaking throughout.
They are medium-size butterflies, two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half inches across, or more. Females are larger than the guys. Females are also a little darker and more prominently marked.
Gulf fritillary butterflies like open, sunny spaces, such as meadows, roadsides, fallow fields, open woodlands, parks and possibly your backyard.
Gulf fritillaries are migratory. Beginning in late summer, butterflies in the northern portions of their range begin moving south into frost-free places such as South Florida and southern Texas. They reverse the course in the spring.
Guys spend their time on the look out for the ladies of the species. Females, after mating, lay yellow eggs singly on or near a host plant — which will be a passion vine, most likely either purple, corkystem or yellow. They're so associated with passion vine that they're called the passion butterfly.
The caterpillars are bright orange with black spikes throughout their body. They will munch on passaflora sometimes to the point of defoliating the host. The pupa looks like a dead leaf. One odd thing: according to Butterflies and Moths of North America, it's not known how many flights, or generations born, during the year — odd because it is such a common butterfly.
Gulf fritillary butterflies are practioners of Batesian defense. What is that, you might ask? In a word, mimicry. Their black and orange coloring makes them look superficially like monarchs, queens and soldiers, all of which are toxic to birds and other predators. The bright orange acts like a signal warning predators to leave them be. Gulf fritillaries aren't toxic, but the resemblance to butterflies that are, making less likely to become meals.