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Swallowtails and Parnassians, Family Papilionidae


Giant swallowtail.

Giant swallowtail. Note the tail-like extensions on the hindwings, which is a common trait of many Papilionids.

Photo: Wikimediae Commons/MONGO

The family Papilionidae includes the swallowtails, some of our most visible and striking butterflies, and the parnassians, which are mountain dwellers. Though quite different in many ways, these two subfamilies of butterflies share certain key traits. The world's largest butterflies, the birdwings, belong to this family.


The conspicuous swallowtails are big, bright butterflies – many are black and yellow – that inhabit gardens, parks, and meadows. Most have a tail-like extension on each hindwing, and some have more than one per wing. These tails are believed to serve as a decoy to fool predators. A pursuing bird may mistake it for an antenna, and wind up clutching a detached piece of wing in its beak while the swallowtail escapes, almost unharmed. The medium-sized parnassians live in mountain and boreal habitats, and tend to be monochromatic in color – gray, white, and black.

All members of this family have three pairs of functional walking legs as adults, unlike the brush-footed butterflies. To distinguish adult swallowtails or parnassians from other butterfly families, you will need to examine the wing veins carefully. In butterflies in the family Papilionidae, the second anal vein (A2) extends to the wing margin, and the first (A1) and second (A2) anal veins do not meet. Also, the cervical sclerites on Papilionids meet behind the neck.

Larvae in this family can be identified by the presence of an osmeterium, a forked scent gland that protrudes from behind the head when the caterpillars senses a threat.


Kingdom – Animalia
Phylum – Arthropoda
Class – Insecta
Order – Lepidoptera
Family - Papilionoidae


Adult butterflies in this family feed on flower nectar, tree sap, or fermenting fruit, depending on the species. Caterpillars feed on plants. Pipevines are a common host for Papilionid larvae, as are plants in the custard apple, laurel, umbel, and citrus families.

Life Cycle:

All butterflies and moths undergo complete metamorphosis, with four stages of development: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Papilionids are no exception to this rule.

Range and Distribution:

Papilionids inhabit every continent with the exception of Antarctica, and are most diverse in the tropics. The family includes about 550 species, nearly all of them swallowtails.

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