Papilionidae Classification Essay

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Gracing the yards and meadows of much of North America is the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly – a glorious insect with broad blue wings that shimmer with iridescence as it flits from plant to plant sipping flower nectar.

It makes for a lovely scene, doesn’t it?

It probably does until you learn the swallowtail’s secret plan! Yes, that’s right, the pipevine swallowtail is plotting against you. In fact, it’s also plotting against your dog, the neighborhood birds and everything else that lives in your yard!

The Pipevine Swallowtail’s nefarious plot begins after it hatches out of its egg. Yes, even as a baby the Pipevine Swallowtail is out to get you. How so? Because right away the young caterpillar starts eating the poisonous plant Aristolochia, which is sometimes called pipevine, Dutchman’s pipe and birthwort.

As it matures and eats more and more Aristolochia, the caterpillar retains much of the toxin inside its body without succumbing to the poison itself. Over time, the caterpillar and its butterfly adult form have so much toxin in it that the insects become toxic as well.

As a result, birds, insects and other animals who try to eat a Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar are in for a surprise! These tough caterpillars will exude a foul tasting liquid when they’re in trouble, which causes most animals to spit them out right away. For those animals who manage to swallow one, they are subjected to the poisonous acids that Pipevine Swallowtails store inside in their body. Even as adults, the toxin remains and predators soon learn to leave these beauties alone.

In all, it’s a pretty clever plan on the Pipevine Swallowtail’s part. They poison themselves as a form of protection! While some predators learn this the hard way, others appear to have an instinctual aversion to their color and wing patterns.

In fact, their poison works so well that Pipevine Swallowtails aren’t worried about predators at all. Caterpillars make no effort to hide themselves while chomping down on the Aristolochia, and butterflies appear to be equally carefree. Likewise, a number of other butterflies have adopted the look of the Pipevine Swallowtail in their own effort to ward off predators.

It certainly makes sense. What predator would want to knowingly eat something that’s foul tasting and makes them sick? You have to give credit to the Pipevine Swallowtails and their clever little scheme – it’s a great way to avoid the hungry animals of the world!



The swallowtail butterfly family, Papilionidae, consists of at least 550 species, many of which are large and colorful and recognizable even to non-specialists. While the majority of swallowtail species are found in tropical latitudes, representatives from the family can be found on every continent except Antarctica, and can be common in both tropical and temperate habitats. Swallowtail butterfly diversity is greatest in East and Southeast Asia, a region where many natural butterfly habitats are under extreme threat of destruction due to human activity. Some swallowtails, particularly representatives from the genus Parnassius, may fly at very high elevations. The birdwing butterflies (Troidini: Troides) of Australasia are the largest butterflies in the world. Collins and Morris (1985) provide an overview of the patterns of swallowtail diversity around the world.

The name "swallowtail" refers to a tail-like extension on the edge of the hindwing that is found in many, though not all, papilionids. The function of this tail is not known, but genetic studies in some species of Papilio suggest the tail is a labile character whose expression is controlled by a single gene (Clarke and Sheppard 1960, Clarke et al. 1968).

Within the Papilionidae, many families of larval hostplants are utilized, although five families generally dominate the host records: Aristolochiaceae, Annonaceae, Lauraceae, Apiaceae, and Rutaceae. Notably, the swallowtail tribes Zerynthiini (Parnassiinae), Luehdorfiini (Parnassiinae) and Troidini (Papilioninae) are limited almost exclusively to feeding on Aristolochiaceae. It has been demonstrated in a number of Aristolochia-feeders that caterpillars are able to sequester aristolochic acids, causing both the larval and adult stages to be unpalatable to predators (eg. von Euw et al. 1968).

Discussion of Phylogenetic Relationships

For several decades the favored view of Papilionidae has divided the family into four subfamilies: Baroniinae, Praepapilioninae, Parnassiinae, and Papilioninae (Munroe, 1961; Hancock, 1983), thought to be related (with constituent tribes) thusly:

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© Vazrick Nazari

Baroniinae and Praepapilioninae are both considered to be very primitive. The plesiomorphic nature of the sole species of the Baroniinae, Baronia brevicornis, has been supported by virtually all treatments. The sole genus of Praepapilioninae, Praepapilio, includes two species of extinct butterflies that were each described from single fossils found in a middle Eocene deposit in Colorado, U.S.A. (Durden and Rose, 1978). Praepapilio and Baronia share several striking similarities, but their exact relationship has been difficult to determine.

Both Praepapilio and Baronia have traditionally been considered to be the sister group to the rest of the swallowtails, but recently several alternative hypotheses regarding the root of the swallowtail tree have been considered. In an analysis of 103 morphological characters from 59 butterfly and 19 moth species, de Jong et al. (1996) presented some evidence that the genus Parnassius may be the sister group to the rest of the swallowtails. However, the intra-papilionid relationships in de Jong et al.'s (1996) study changed dramatically when the composition of the outgroups was altered, and a local analysis with a butterfly-only outgroup provided the traditional Baronia-as-sister rooting. Furthermore, de Jong et al. (1996) included only six papilionid species in the analysis, leaving out many taxa bearing characteristics key to understanding papilionid relationships.

Using a maximum-likelihood analysis of DNA sequence data, Caterino et al. (2001) found possible evidence for a root within the Papilioninae that would place Papilionini + Troidini as the sister group to the rest of the swallowtails. Because the likelihood of this intra-Papilioninae rooting was not found to be significantly higher than the traditional rooting, and because the traditional rooting is favored using maximum parsimony, we present the traditional rooting in our phylogeny.

Although a phylogenetic analysis of morphological characters has generally supported a monophyletic Parnassiinae (Miller, 1987), several other studies on morphological (Häuser, 1993; de Jong et al., 1996) and molecular (Yagi et al., 1999; Caterino et al., 2001) characters have called into question the monophyly of the subfamily. However, a new phylogenetic study on Parnassiinae, based on five mitochondrial and two nuclear genes, as well as 236 morphological characters (Nazari et al., 2007) has provided some evidence of a monophyletic Parnassiinae with three strongly supported tribes within the subfamily. This study also suggests that Praepapilio is sister only to Papilionini and Baronia is sister only to Parnassiinae, and likely none of the two are sister to all swallowtails as previously indicated.

With the exception of the intra-Papilioninae rooting alternative proposed by Caterino et al. (2001), the monophyly of the Papilioninae has been accepted by virtually every worker in the field. Despite this general consensus, the relationships of the tribes that comprise the subfamily have been debated. For our phylogeny, we follow the recommendation of Miller (1987) in recognizing Teinopalpini as the sister group to the Troidini + Papilionini group. At the time of this writing, no molecular data for Teinopalpini exist, and Miller (1987) provides the only rigorous phylogenetic analysis of the morphological data. The tribe Teinopalpini consists of only two species, both in the genus Teinopalpus. Munroe (1961) and Hancock (1983) did not grant Teinopalpini tribal status, but considered Teinopalpus to be a Graphiine genus (note that both authors used the name "Leptocircini" instead of "Graphiini").


Ackery, P.R. 1975. A guide to the genera and species of Parnassiinae (Lepidoptera: Papilionidae). Bull. Mus. (Nat. Hist.) Entomol. 31: 73-105.

Bryk, F. 1923. Baroniidae, Teinopalpidae, Parnassiidae. In E. Strand (ed.), Lepidopterorum catalogus, 27.

Bryk, F. 1929-1930. Papilionidae I-III. In E. Strand (ed.), Lepidopterorum catalogus, 35, 37, and 39.

Caterino, M.S., R.D. Reed, M.M. Kuo, and F.A.H. Sperling. 2001. A partitioned likelihood analysis of swallowtail butterfly phylogeny (Lepidoptera: Papilionidae). Syst. Biol. 50(1):106-127.

Clarke, C.A., and P.M. Sheppard. 1960. The evolution of mimicry in the butterfly Papilio dardanus. Heredity 14: 163-173.

Clarke, C.A., P.M. Sheppard, and I.W.B. Thornton. 1968. The genetics of the mimetic butterfly Papilio memnon L. Phil. Tran. Roy. Soc. London, ser. B. 254: 37-89.

Collins, N.M, and M.G. Morris. 1985. Threatened swallowtail butterflies of the world. The IUCN Red Data Book. IUCN, Gland and Cambridge.

de Jong, R., R.I. Vane-Wright, and P.R. Ackery. 1996. The higher classification of butterflies (Lepidoptera): Problems and prospects. Entomol. Scand. 27: 65-101.

Durden, C.J., and H. Rose. 1978. Butterflies from the middle Eocene: the earliest occurence of fossil Papilionidae (Lepidoptera). Pearce-Sellards Ser. Tex. Mem. Mus. 29: 1-25.

Ehrlich, P.R. 1958. The comparative morphology, phylogeny, and higher classification of the butterflies. Univ. Kansas Sci. Bull. 39: 305-370.

Eisner, T., and Y.C. Meinwald. 1965. The defensive secretions of a caterpillar (Papilio). Science 150: 1733-1735.

Ford, E.B. 1944. Studies on the chemistry of pigments in the Lepidoptera, with reference to their bearing on systematics. 4. The classification of the Papilionidae. Trans. R. Entomol. Soc. London. 94: 201-223.

Häuser, C.L. 1993. Critical comments on the phylogenetic relationships within the family Papilionidae. Nota Lepid. 16: 34-43.

Hancock, D.L. 1983. Classification of the Papilionidae (Lepidoptera): a phylogenetic approach. Smithersia 2: 1-48.

Igarashi, S. 1984. The classification of the Papilionidae mainly based on the morphology of their immature stages. Tyo to Ga 34: 41-96.

Miller, J.S. 1987. Phylogenetic studies in the Papilioninae (Lepidoptera: Papilionidae). Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist. 186:365-512.

Munroe, E. 1961. The classification of the Papilionidae. Can. Entomol. Suppl. 17:1-51.

Munroe, R. and P.R. Ehrlich. 1960 Harmonization of concepts of higher classification of the Papilionidae. J. Lepid. Soc. 14:169-175.

Nazari, V., Zakharov, E.V., Sperling, F.A.H., 2007. Phylogeny, historical biogeography, and taxonomic ranking of Parnassiinae (Lepidoptera, Papilionidae) based on morphology and seven genes. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 42: 131-156.

Rothschild, W., and K. Jordan. 1906. A revision of the American Papilios. Novit. Zool. 13: 412-752.

Talbot, G. 1949. Fauna of British India. Butterflies, Vol. 1. London: Taylor and Francis.

von Euw, J., T. Reichstein, and M. Rothschild. 1968. Aristolochic acid in the swallowtail butterfly Pachlioptera aristolochiae. Isr. J. Chem. 6: 659-670.

Yagi, T., G. Sasaki, and H. Takebe. 1999. Phylogeny of Japanese papilionid butterflies inferred from nucloetide sequences of the mitochondrial ND5 gene. J. Mol. Evol. 48:42-48.

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About This Page

Robert D. Reed
University of California, Irvine, California, USA

Felix A. H. Sperling
University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Correspondence regarding this page should be directed to Robert D. Reed at

Page copyright © 2001 Robert D. Reed

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  • First online 21 February 2002
  • Content changed 07 July 2006
Citing this page:

Reed, Robert D. and Felix A. H. Sperling. 2006. Papilionidae. The Swallowtail Butterflies. Version 07 July 2006. The Tree of Life Web Project,

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