Animal Species:Wanderer Butterfly

The Wanderer or Monarch Butterfly is well-known in North America for its massive and wide-ranging migrations. In Australia, the species also makes limited migratory movements in cooler areas. It has only been present in Australia since about 1871.

Monarch Butterfly Danaus plexippus

R.Jessop © Australian Museum

Standard Common Name

Wanderer Butterfly

Alternative Name/s

Monarch Butterfly

Identification

Adult Wanderer Butterflies are orange-brown with black wing veins and a black and white spotted band along the edge of the wings. The caterpillar is distinctive, with black, white and yellow stripes across its body. It has two pairs of black tentacles - a longer pair at the front of the body and a shorter pair on the eighth body segment.

Size range

Wingspan 7 cm - 9 cm

Distribution

The Wanderer Butterfly is found in eastern and southern Australia, in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria (uncommon) and South Australia. They are commonly seen in Sydney during summer, usually flying at ground level. They have been recorded at speeds of up to 40 km per hour. The earliest sighting of this butterfly in Sydney was in 1871, although the population only became established when its food plants, including poisonous milkweed, were also introduced.

Habitat

Wanderer Butteflies live in urban areas, where its food plants (e.g. milkweeds) are found.

Seasonality

In summer, Wanderers are found throughout their range along the east coast of Australia from Queensland to South Australia, and in south-west Western Australia. They have also been found in isolated parts of the Northern Territory. They are strong fliers and can cover long distances during their adult life, which is about a month to six weeks in summer. During this time they can move to unoccupied areas to find new plants on which to lay eggs. They take nectar from flowers to maintain their energy levels as they go.

As winter approaches, the butterflies leave the inland areas as temperatures drop and migrate towards the coast. For Wanderers near the coast north of the Richmond River in New South Wales, breeding can continue for most of the year with one generation following another. Further south, adults that develop in autumn do not breed immediately. They remain in a non-breeding state throughout winter, some of them staying in the same district for several months.

In cooler areas, these non-breeding adults may gather together and hang from the branches of trees in large clusters of thousands of butterflies. This is known as over-wintering. The same trees are used for this year after year. The clusters are at first made up mainly of males. The females arrive a week or so later. During the warmth of the day the butterflies fly around the trees, but with the afternoon drop in temperature they settle to reform clusters. Cluster sites are known in the Sydney Basin and Hunter Valley, as well in the Mt Lofty Ranges, near Adelaide.

The clusters appear in about April and remain until about August or September, when the butterflies disperse after mating. The females are the first to leave, moving off to lay the first eggs of the new season on fresh spring growth. Succeeding generations extend the range across the country until the full summer range of the species is again occupied.

Feeding and Diet

Wanderer Butterfly caterpillars are most often found on their preferred food plants, which are from the milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae). These plants have a milky sap, from which the caterpillars derive distasteful toxins that deter predators from eating them. The caterpillars' bright colouration is a warning to these predators that they are potentially toxic. The adult butterfly is also toxic to most predators.

Other behaviours and adaptations

The poison from the plants is carried through the various stages of the Wanderer Butterfly's life cycle, making them unpalatable and causing many predators, including large birds, to be violently ill.

Life cycle

After feeding for about two weeks, the Wanderer pupates on the food plant inside a pupal case that is green banded with golden spots. The adult butterfly emerges after about three weeks (in summer).

Predators, Parasites and Diseases

Some predators appear to be unaffected by the Wanderer Butterfly's poison and birds such as the Pied Currawong (Strepera graculina) and the Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike (Coracina novaehollandiae) have been seen feeding on it.

Classification

Species:
plexippus
Genus:
Danaus
Subfamily:
Danainae
Family:
Nymphalidae
Superfamily:
Papilionoidea
Order:
Lepidoptera
Class:
Insecta
Subphylum:
Uniramia
Phylum:
Arthopoda
Kingdom:
Animalia

What does this mean?

References

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Tags butterflies, insects, arthropods, invertebrates, identification, wildlife of sydney,

8 comments

jasonyoung.denmark - 12.02 AM, 09 February 2012
The attached picture is of the larval stage of Danaus plexippus, in my garden, in Denmark, Western Australia. At first, I had never seen the plant before (Asclepias sp.), nor the caterpillars. The photo was taken today, 8 February 2012, after identifying at least eight individual larvae from early to late instar stage. There was also one adult flying around and feeding off the nectar of the milkweed.

Comment Attachment

rossmcn - 1.01 PM, 12 January 2012
There is a cluster in a patch of open open ground in the bush behind Lorne. Every year for the last ten or so we have gone there during holidays and it is like driving through a sea of them, must be hundreds of thousands of them. Awesome
Ellen - 4.08 AM, 01 August 2011
Wanderer butterflies are regular visitors to gardens in the town of St Arnaud, between Horsham and Bendigo,in Victoria, especially in summer and autumn. The lifecycle of the butterfly can be seen at the Bible Museum's garden in Napier Street, St Arnaud.
smking - 7.05 PM, 22 May 2011
Today we saw five Wanderer Butterfly in Portland Southern Victoria. We also found the shell of some chrysalis and one chrysalis yet to hatch. so exciting
David Britton - 11.05 AM, 04 May 2011

Thanks for the comment Nadya. I grew up near Seymour in Victoria, and it was always very exciting to see a Wanderer in the garden. They were very infrequent visitors that far south, and would be similarly unusual at Kyneton.

Nadya - 8.05 PM, 02 May 2011
Hello. I just read a report that the Wanderer was spotted in Riddells Creek. I saw one in Gisborne 2 months ago and 30 years ago I saw a few in mum's orchard, south Kyneton when I was a girl. They were definetely Wanderers. I never thought anything of it, until I read the article, saying they don't occur that far!
David Britton - 8.04 AM, 19 April 2011

Hi Paula,

It is not exceptionally unusual to see monarch butterflies as far south as Melbourne, although this far south they are usually infrequent vagrants rather than breeding in the area, as the larval food plants are not naturalised in southern Victoria. 

Paulew - 11.04 AM, 16 April 2011
My daughter and I saw a large Wanderer Butterfly at Seaspray in Gippsland on Thursday feeding on a flowering shrub. It was around for approximately three hours. How rare is it for them to appear so far south?

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