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Common Butterflies in Missouri (10 Species)

Most of Missouri’s landscape is considered plains, although the state is also home to the Ozark Plateau region. Numerous lakes and rivers are also located in the state, providing a wide array of landscapes and habitats for the state’s diverse wildlife. Butterflies in Missouri vary greatly in size, color, and preferred habitats.

Photo collage butterflies in Missouri


1. Ozark Swallowtail

Female ozark swallowtail
Female ozark swallowtail | image by Charles T. and John R. Bryson via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 3.0

Scientific Name: Papilio Joanae

Unlike many other swallowtails throughout the United States, the Ozark swallowtail is found almost exclusively in Missouri. Like other members of the Papilionidae family, this swallowtail is fairly large, reaching a wingspan of over 4-inches wide.

Some diversity exists within the species, although they are primarily black with rows of yellow spots on the forewing and iridescent blue markings on the hindwing. Characteristic of the family, two large tails trail off the hindwings.

The Ozark swallowtail is a species of concern; with such a small native range, invasive plants may be reducing the availability of caterpillar hosts.

2. Mourning Cloak

Mourning cloak on trunk
Mourning cloak on trunk | Image by Erik Karits from Pixabay

Scientific Name: Nymphalis antiopa

The mourning cloak is widespread throughout much of the United States, including throughout many regions in Missouri. Reaching up to 4-inches, the mourning cloak is a moderately sized butterfly with a distinctive color pattern.

Most adults display a deep, reddish-purple upper with a wide marginal band of cream or white. Iridescent blue spots line the marginal band. Wings have a distinctive fringed appearance. At rest, the mourning cloak’s brown underside with cream band resembles a leaf or bark, making it easy to miss at rest.

Like many other species, caterpillars of this butterfly live communally. Leaves of willow species are the preferred food of larvae; adults prefer the sap of oak and other trees. Mourning cloaks are a migratory species that will migrate on a smaller, more localized scale and can be found wherever food is plentiful.

3. Common Buckeye

Common buckeye butterfly
Common buckeye butterfly | Image by Brett Hondow from Pixabay

Scientific Name: Junonia coenia

One of the most common butterfly species found throughout the eastern half of the United States, the common buckeye is also common throughout Missouri in open fields, meadows, and suburban areas with plenty of sunlight.

This medium-sized butterfly displays four large eyespots, each with rings. The upper is typically brown and marked with bright orange to reddish-orange patches. Buckeyes enjoy a wide array of hosts; most host plants are in the snapdragon family.

4. Swamp Metalmark

Swamp metalmark
Swamp metalmark | image by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Calephelis muticum

Nearly all metalmarks have a telltale coloring of rusty orange and brown; the swamp metalmark is no exception. Found in various regions throughout Missouri, this small butterfly favors wet areas such as bogs and swamps. Unfortunately, this butterfly is becoming less common in their range and is actually an endangered species in parts of its range. 

Caterpillars prefer various types of thistle growing throughout their preferred habitats, while adults prefer nectar.

5. Harvester

Harvester butterfly
Harvester butterfly | by ALAN SCHMIERER via Flickr

Scientific Name: Feniseca tarquinius

As the only predatory caterpillar in the United States, the harvester is unique among butterflies. This small butterfly only reaches 1 1/4 inches as an adult.

The wings are orange with black bands and irregular markings. Folded, the butterflies have purplish undersides with faint white circles.

Females lay their eggs among colonies of woolly aphids; as the caterpillars hatch, they feed on the small insects. In some documented populations, caterpillars have covered themselves in carcasses of their prey as protection from predatory ants.

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6. Question Mark

Question mark butterfly
question mark butterfly by khteWisconsin via Flickr

Scientific Name: Polygonia interrogationis

Yes, this species is named after a punctuation mark. The question mark butterfly gets its common (and scientific) name from a silvery question mark-shaped marking on the underside of its wings.

This species is closely related to the comma butterflies, also named for their punctuation mark-shaped details. Question marks are reddish-brown on the upperside of its wings with short, dusky-black tails.

A thin, white marginal band lines the outer edges of the wings. Caterpillars hatch away from their host plants, causing them to journey in search of food.

7. Common Wood Nymph

Common wood nymph
Common wood nymph | Image by Daniel Roberts from Pixabay

Scientific Name: Cercyonis pegala

The common wood nymph is widely distributed throughout parts of North America; in Missouri, however, populations are restricted to a few specific areas, including near Kansas City and Bronson. The wings are dusky-brown; two large eyespots break up the relatively drab upper. The underside of the wings, on the other hand, display numerous eyespots, possibly to ward off predators.

While the common name suggests this species prefers forests and wooded areas, they prefer open areas with an array of native flowers and grasses.

8. Pepper and Salt Skipper

Pepper and salt skipper
Pepper and salt skipper on a flower | image by pondhawk via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Amblyscirtes hegon

Like many of Missouri’s skippers, the pepper and salt is relatively small with a wingspan not exceeding 1 1/2 inches. With the wings unfolded, this small skipper displays pale speckles on reddish-brown wings. The underside is heavily mottled.

Adults are often spotted near streams in wooded areas where food sources are plentiful. Preferred caterpillar hosts include various grass species; adults prefer nectar from viburnum and other native plants.

9. Dainty Sulphur

Dainty sulphur
Dainty sulphur butterfly by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Southwest Region

Scientific Name: Nathalis iole

Dainty indeed, this small butterfly’s wingspan doesn’t exceed 1 1/4 inches! Yellow wings display black markings, females have much more black than males. A bright yellow or orange patch on the underside of the forewing is complemented with small, irregular black spots.

The caterpillars and adults of this migratory species enjoy low-growing plants, including wild and cultivated marigolds. The dainty sulphur is the smallest sulphur in Missouri and North America.

10. Giant Swallowtail

Giant swallowtail butterfly
Giant swallowtail butterfly | image by USFWS Midwest Region via Flickr

Scientific Name: Papilio cresphontes

Not only the largest of the butterflies in Missouri, but the largest in the United States. The giant swallowtail reaches over 6-inches wide and is truly a sight as it flutters through gardens, forests, plains, parks, and suburban areas.

This large, black butterfly has distinctive yellow markings and bands on the upperside of its wings; the underside is nearly reversed with black markings against a yellow background. Long tails on the hindwings are characteristic of this family, lending to the common name “swallowtail.”

Caterpillars resemble bird droppings and can grow quite large. Larval food hosts include citrus and other tree leaves; adults prefer the nectar of several popular garden flowers, allowing homeowners to get up close and personal with this giant beauty.