When you think of Tennessee, the first things that come to mind might include the lively music scene of Nashville, Memphis BBQ, or serene mountain landscapes. As culturally diverse as the state’s human population is, Tennessee boasts an equally diverse variety of wildlife throughout its many types of landscapes, including dozens of butterfly species. Many species of butterflies in Tennessee inhabit the eastern part of the state in the Appalachian mountains and foothills; others prefer open areas away from the densely wooded forests of the mountains.
9 common butterflies in Tennessee
Most people instinctively think of the monarch butterfly when the subject of butterflies in Tennessee comes up. Below is a list of some of Tennessee’s other butterflies, many of which you may never have heard of before!
1. Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail
Scientific name: Papilio appalachiensis
Tennessee is home to numerous swallowtails, but the Appalachian tiger swallowtail being among the largest with a wingspan of nearly 3 ½ to 4 ½ inches. Its namesake is the striking yellow and black pattern on its wings’ upper-sides. With the underside showing blue, orange, black, and/or yellow markings.
The only known larval host is the wild black cherry, a tree found throughout the state and region. As adults, Appalachian tiger swallowtails rarely venture far from densely wooded areas.
2. Diana Fritillary
Scientific name: Speyeria diana
A large butterfly reaching up to 4 ½ inches with distinctive markings that differ between sexes. Males sport black wings with a thick orangish-yellow margin speckled with black lines and spots, females boasting a similar pattern with black and blue.
Unlike many other species, females lay eggs on the ground on dead leaves surrounding violets, the primary food source for caterpillars. This once-common butterfly is now threatened, but still somewhat common locally throughout the state.
3. Mourning Cloak
Scientific name: Nymphalis antiopa
The mourning cloak butterfly is among the longest-lived butterflies in the region, and possibly the longest-lived. This medium-sized butterfly’s distinctive pattern serves as its namesake: a deep purplish-black uppersides with a thick creamy-white margin decorated with iridescent blue spots and markings, resembling a beautiful cloak.
Mourning cloak caterpillars feed on a wide range of host plants found throughout Tennessee and most of North America. Unlike some other caterpillars, mourning cloaks are known to wander about from plant to plant. Adults prefer oak sap, but will also feed on fruits and nectar.
4. Cabbage White
Scientific name: Pieris rapae
It may sound odd to have a butterfly named after a vegetable, but the name comes from the caterpillar’s preferred food: Brassica. The caterpillars may become pestilent for gardeners as their feeding frenzies often decimate cabbages and related vegetables. Cabbage white adults feed on numerous flowers
Adults are small- to medium-sized butterflies with clean white wings decorated with small black spots and marginal patches. This species is common throughout its massive range, which spans throughout much of North America.
Scientific name: Limenitis archippus
The viceroy’s impressive range includes all of Tennessee, it’s a common sight throughout the state. This vividly colored butterfly is often mistaken for the well-known monarch due to its similar markings. Adults are medium-sized with wingspans between 2 ½ to 3 ½ inches.
Rusty orange wings are sectioned with black stripes and lines; a single row of white dots breaks up the black wing margins. Caterpillars feed on a variety of trees in the willow family, including Salix and Populus species. Adults feed on a wide variety of foods including carrion, fungi, and flowers.
6. Question Mark
Scientific name: Polygonia interrogationis
The question mark’s deep reddish-orange uppersides are dazzled with black spots and a thin white margin. Their hind-wings are primarily a dusky black with short tails. When its wings are upright and folded, Question Mark butterflies resemble dead leaves with one striking iridescent question mark-shaped spot on the hindwing.
Unlike many other butterfly species which lay their eggs on or near the caterpillars’ host plants, female question marks often deposit their eggs on non-host plants, forcing the caterpillars to seek out their preferred hosts.
7. Common Wood Nymph
Scientific name: Cercyonis pegala
The common wood nymph butterfly is primarily found in the eastern part of the state, including Chattanooga, Knoxville, and the Smoky Mountain region. This small- to medium-sized butterfly is primarily dusty-brown with two large eyespots on the upperside of its forewings. Several smaller eyespots dapple the underside of the wings, some with paler rings.
Caterpillars hatch in autumn and overwinter, waking in spring to feed on various species of grasses. Despite their name, wood nymphs prefer open grassy areas where adults feed on various flowers and rotting fruits.
8. Goatweed Leafwing
Scientific name: Anaea andria
The goatweed leafwing’s common name may sound strange, but it details the key characteristics of this unassuming butterfly. At rest, adults resemble dead leaves with their brown, hooked wings. Caterpillars prefer to feed on native goatweed.
Adults vary in color from reddish-brown to red, with pearlized white margins on the upper-sides of the wings. They prefer habitats of woodland edges, feeding on a variety of foods as an adult. Food sources for adults include bird droppings, fruit, and sap.
9. Appalachian Brown
Scientific name: Satyrodes appalachia
Appalachian brown populations are scattered throughout Tennessee, with more concentrated populations in the eastern part of the state in the mountains. This unassuming butterfly is brown on top with a row of eyespots on the hind-wings. When at rest, more distinctive eyespots line the edges of the wings, often with numerous rings.
While many butterflies are considered pollinators for various types of flowers, the Appalachian brown adult feeds on non-floral foods, such as sap. Caterpillars prefer various types of native sedges found throughout the state.