Agraulis vanillae incarnata

Gulf Fritillary

The "tropical" butterfly known as the gulf fritillary may easily be drawn to the garden by planting passion vines (Passiflora spp.). While the plants aren't natives, the butterfly may actually be, strange as it may seem. In his book The Butterflies of the West Coast (1905), W.G. Wright claimed that gulf fritillaries came to California when the Southern Pacific Railroad established service from New Orleans ca. 1885. This was disputed, however, by Karl Coolidge in a note in the Entomological News, vol. 35 (1924), pp.22-3. Coolidge wrote that the butterfly was "indigenous to the Mohave and Colorado Desert regions, and as early as 1876 was reported to be very abundant about San Diego." As for the pre-passiflora hosts, Coolidge offered Trifolium as a possible native food plant without showing the butterfly actually used it successfully. Scott (1986) lists only species of passiflora as hosts. At a minimum, it's been around southern California for a while.

Native or not, this is a welcome butterfly to our fauna and an easy one for the suburban gardener to attract and raise. It is also beautiful. I very much remember being fixated by the three white dots encircled in black against the deep orange of each dorsal forewing as a turning point in my interest in butterflies many years ago. Then there is the gorgeous underside, so exotic to the unsuspecting suburbanite who bothers to examine it.

The species was named by Linnaeus in the tenth edition of Systema naturae (1758), "probably" based on a specimen brought from Suriname. Our subspecies, incarnata, was named in 1926, with a type locality near Durango, Mexico.

Agraulis vanillae incarnata - Western Gulf Fritillary
A female gulf fritillary in my garden in Long Beach. Note the heaviness of the black veins compared with the male below. July 6, 2006.
Agraulis vanillae incarnata - Western Gulf Fritillary
A male Gulf Fritillary. I planted passionflower vines to attract them several years ago, and these butterflies have been an almost constant presence in our yard ever since. The passionflower must be a variety with thin leaves or the larvae will not be able to eat them. Passiflora caerulea works. June 17, 2006.
Agraulis vanillae incarnata - Western Gulf Fritillary
The underside is really something. Nectaring in my garden. October 6, 2006.
Egg of Agraulis vanillae incarnata - Western Gulf Fritillary
Here's an egg on a passionflower leaf in my suburban backyard. July 23, 2020.
Agraulis vanillae incarnata - Western Gulf Fritillary
Another gulf fritillary egg on the left; early (first?) instar larva on the right. All these photos of immatures were taken in my garden on passionflower vines.
Caterpillar of Agraulis vanillae incarnata - Western Gulf Fritillary
This is a second or third instar caterpillar. July 23, 2020.
Caterpillar of the Gulf Fritillary - Agraulis vanillae incarnata
Larva of Agraulis vanillae incarnata. In the garden on passionflower vine. May 16, 2020.
Caterpillar of Agraulis vanillae incarnata - Western Gulf Fritillary
This looks like the final instar; after this it pupates. July 24, 2020.
Pupa of Agraulis vanillae incarnata - Western Gulf Fritillary
A pupa on the vines. July 23, 2020.

©Dennis Walker