Alabama Butterfly Atlas

Butterfly: Wingspan: 3 3/8 - 4 7/8 inches (8.6 - 12.4 cm).Upperside of male is bright orange with wide black borders and thin black veins; hindwing has a patch of scent scales that look like swollen pouches.  Upperside of female is orange-brown with wide black borders and thick black veins. Both sexes have white spots on borders and apex. 

ID Tip: Orange with black veins and wide black borders flecked with white dots.

Egg: Round and white,  Laid singly on host leaves.

Caterpillar: White with black and yellow rings--warning colors that signal predators that this caterpillar is distasteful.  There are two long, black filaments at head and tail ends.

Chrysalis: Green with fine black lines and a gold-dotted dorsal band around the abdomen.  Once known as "the little green coffin with golden nails."

Monarchs are the most celebrated and well-known butterflies in North America.  They are familiar residents of Alabama and occur in every county.  Yet, because of their migratory patterns, most Alabamians encounter them only in spring and fall when they pass through the state on the way to and from their wintering grounds.

Monarchs are not cold tolerant but eastern populations solve that problem by migrating to a warmer climate—a feat that involves flying thousands of miles and circumnavigating a continent.  Monarchs that originate as far north as Canada and New England follow the Appalachian Mountain range south, and some eventually stream through Alabama.  Many make it to south Alabama where they roost communally in trees and shrubs in places like Fort Morgan and the grounds of the Grand Hotel in Fairhope. Most travel on to Mexico but in 2008/2009, Duane Miller discovered that hundreds stay in Alabama, clustered in pine trees at Fort Morgan, flying only when days are warm. 

Monarchs are reliant on poisonous food plants called milkweeds.  These plants contain chemicals (cardenolides and cardiac glycosides) that taste bitter and cause congestive heart failure in vertebrates. Monarch caterpillars are able to ingest these chemicals, retain them in their bodies throughout metamorphosis, and use them for their own defense.  Birds find them very distasteful and learn to avoid black, yellow, and white striped caterpillars as well as orange and black butterflies. 

Monarchs are well-known and widespread, but the species has been plagued with problems.  In central Mexico, primary wintering grounds have been threatened by logging.  In this country, crucial milkweed-rich habitat has been lost due to changes in agricultural practices. Another big threat to long-term abundance is microscopically small: a protozoan parasite called OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) infects butterflies that host on milkweed.  The parasite weakens caterpillars and cripples adult butterflies.  According to researchers at the University of Georgia, Monarchs that do not migrate are more likely to be infected.  It remains to be seen how changes in climate as well as widespread availability of non-native milkweeds in the landscape will impact long term Monarch health.

 

Distribution and Abundance

A dot on the county map indicates that there is at least one documented record of the species within that county. In some cases, a species may be common throughout the county, in others it may be found in only a specific habitat.

The sightings bar graphs depict the timing of flight(s) within each of three geographic regions. Place your cursor on a bar within the graph to see the number of individuals recorded during that period.

The abundance calendar displays the total number of individuals recorded within each week of the month. Both the graphs and the calendar are on based data collection that began in 2000.

The records analyzed here are only a beginning. As more data is collected, these maps and graphs will paint a more accurate picture of distribution and abundance in Alabama. Submit your sightings to albutterflyatlas@gmail.com.

Sightings in the following counties: Baldwin, Barbour, Bibb, Blount, Bullock, Chambers, Chilton, Choctaw, Clay, Cleburne, Colbert, Covington, Cullman, Dallas, DeKalb, Elmore, Fayette, Greene, Hale, Houston, Jackson, Jefferson, Lamar, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Lee, Limestone, Madison, Marshall, Mobile, Montgomery, Morgan, Perry, Pickens, Pike, Randolph, Shelby, St. Clair, Sumter, Talladega, Tuscaloosa, Wilcox, Winston

  • Sightings in the past 5 years
  • Sightings in the past 5 - 10 years
  • Sightings more than 10 years ago
County Distribution Map

View county names by moving the mouse over a county or view a map with county names

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
3 4 3 1 1 2 9 7 9 4 3 5 4 2 1 1 1 2 4 6 2 8 10 41 60 50 44 32 65 113 26 58 21 3 7 2 150 4

Habitat

Sunny, open places, both natural and disturbed.

Host and Nectar Plants

Milkweeds and other plants within the Milkweed family are the Monarch's only hosts.

These host plants have been verified in Alabama: Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Western Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), White Milkweed (Asclepias variegata), Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridis), Pinewoods Milkweed (Asclepias humistrata) and the non-native Tropical/Mexican Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica).

For more information about the documented host plants and/or nectar plants, please visit the Alabama Plant Atlas using the following links:

Landscaping Ideas

Plant native milkweeds* to support Monarchs!  These include Butterfly Milkweed and Swamp Milkweed, which are often sold at native plant sales and occasionally found in plant nurseries.  Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) thrives in well-drained soil and in full sun.  Its long taproot makes it drought tolerant, but also means it doesn't transplant well; plant it where you want it to stay.  Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata) appreciates more moisture and will also tolerate some shade.  Check the Alabama Plant Atlas for other milkweeds that grow in your area.  All provide nectar for many butterflies in addition to being Monarch hosts.

Some research indicates that providing late-season nectar sources is as important to Monarchs as providing milkweed! Goldenrods, asters, mistflower, and ironweeds are among the garden-worthy fall bloomers that can provide fuel for Monarchs as well as other butterflies. They are colorful additions to urban and suburban landscapes, which can play an important role in providing nectar sources for Monarchs during fall migration.  Fall is a critical time when Monarch butterflies need to build up body fat in order to accomplish their long southward journey.  Unfortunately many of our gardens have played out by then; make sure yours includes fall flowers!

*Note: Tropical/Mexican Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is controversial among Monarch enthusiasts.  It is a non-native, tropical species that is commonly available in the nursery trade.  Monarchs readily use it as a host, but some research suggests that its longer (almost year-round) growing season may cause them to interrupt normal fall migration patterns to remain and breed where this milkweed is actively growing.  In addition, Mexican/Tropical Milkweed aggressively reseeds in parts of Alabama and is classified as invasive in Florida. Much more research is needed to fully understand the ramifications of planting Mexican/Tropical Milkweed in Alabama and its effects on Monarch butterflies.  For this reason, we only encourage and endorse the planting of Alabama's native milkweeds.