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Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 12:23 EDT

Painted Lady Butterfly

The Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is a well-known colorful butterfly, known in North America as the Cosmopolite.

It is one of the most widespread of all butterflies, found on every continent except Australia which has a close relative, the Australian Painted Lady (Vanessa kershawi, sometimes considered a subspecies). Other closely related species are the American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis), and the West Coast Lady (Vanessa anabella).

The Painted Lady occurs in any temperate zone, including mountains in the tropics. The species is resident only in warmer areas, but migrates in spring, and sometimes again in autumn. For example, it migrates from North Africa and the Mediterranean to Britain in May and June, but offspring produced there die in the fall.

The caterpillars feed on thistles, the adults on thistles and plants like the Buddleia.

Distinguishing features

In general, the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is a large butterfly identified by the black and white corners of its mainly orange wings.

The American Painted Lady (V. virginiensis) is most easily distinguishable by its two large eyespots on the ventral side, whereas cardui has four small eyespots. On the dorsal side, virginiensis also features a small white dot within the orange subapical field. A less reliable indicator is the row of spots on the submarginal hindwing; while cardui typically has a row of small black spots, virginiensis often has two larger outer spots with blue pupils. In its summer form, however, cardui also sometimes has small blue pupils, so it is the two larger spots which best distinguish virginiensis.

The West Coast Lady (V. anabella) does not have obvious ventral eyespots. On the dorsal side, anabella lacks the distinctive white dot of virginiensis, and is a deeper, more consistent orange than both virginiensis and cardui; anabella has a fully orange subapical band and leading edge on the forewing, while in the other species these areas are often pale or tinged with white. The submarginal row of hindwing spots in anabella features three or four blue pupils. The two larger pupils in anabella are the inner spots, rather than the outer spots as in virginiensis.

The Australian Painted Lady (V. kershawi) is similar to V. cardui. However, its four ventral eyespots are less clearly defined, and it always sports at least three (often four) blue pupil spots on its dorsal hindwing.

Painted Lady Butterfly