Nymphalidae: The brushfooted butterflies

The common name for this family refers to the reduced, hairy, brushlike forelegs. This is the largest family of butterflies, there are about 3,900 species worldwide, but most are found in the tropics.These butterflies are variable in color, but the majority are medium-sized to large, with relatively broad and triangular forewings that are orange brown with black markings.Brushwings’ forelegs are reduced to hairy brushes that are not suitable for walking. Their eyes are not indented next to the antennae, and their face is as wide as it is tall between the eyes.|

Anglewings, Commas, and Tortoiseshells (Nymphalinae)

Oreas anglewing
Oreas anglewing (Polygonia oreas), Photo by T.D. Hatten

The common name is derived from the angular, irregular outer edge of the wings of many species in this subfamily.

These butterflies typically have a moderately fast and direct flight pattern, and they often land on the ground or on vegetation after a short flight.

They migrate to the southern U.S. or northern Mexico and return to northern climes in the spring.


Nymphalids are small- to medium-sized brownish butterflies with broad wings that have “ragged” edges. The underside of the wings resembles a dead leaf. Their antennae are long and rigid, with a well-defined narrow club.

Host Plants

Nettles, elms, aspens, birches, hackberry, hops, and willows

Fritillaries (Argynninae)

Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele).
Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele).

Fritillary adults and caterpillars are very common in fields, meadows, and other weedy areas. This group has roughly 30 species in North America.


Fritallaries are medium-sized to large, brownish butterflies with a checkered pattern of black and tawny orange rectangular to square spots on the upperside of both wings. They often have silverish spots on the underside of the hind wing.

Host plants

Larvae feed on violet and passion flower. Adult butterflies feed only on nectar.

Checkerspots and Crescents (Melitaeinae)

Sagebrush Checkerspot  butterflyy
Sagebrush Checkerspot (Chlosyne acastus)

Worldwide, there are about 200 species in this subfamily. Most are subtropical.


The common name, checkerspots, comes from the checkerboard pattern of the upperside of the wings. The overall pattern is rectangular to square black spots with alternate tawny to brick red spots.

Host plants

The larvae feed on Asteraceae species.

Adults find nectar from a great variety of flowers including dogbane, swamp milkweed, shepherd’s needle, asters, and winter cress.

Admirals (Limenitidinae)

Lorquins Admiral (Limenitis lorquini)
Lorquins Admiral (Limenitis lorquini) basking in sunlight along Potlatch Creek, 2012, Latah Co., ID USA (photo: T.D. Hatten)

There are about 45 genera in 3 or 4 tribes included in this family.

Adults fly in a fairly straight, deliberate manner. Males often perch and patrol small forest openings or edges. In flight, many of these butterflies have the habit of flapping their wings, so that the (usually) bright upperside and the cryptic underside alternate for the observer, then gliding for prolonged distances, with the motionless wings held outstretched.


Admirals are medium to medium-large butterflies with wing margins slightly scalloped and the upperside usually black marked with white spots and bands. The antennae are gradually expanded and have scarcely developed clubs. The antennae are typically more than half the length of the forewing.

Host plants

hops, nettle

Satyrs (Satyrinae)

Satyr Comma (Polygonia satyrus)
Satyr Comma (Polygonia satyrus)

This group contains nearly half of the known diversity of brush-footed butterflies. It is estimated that the true number of the Satyrinae species may exceed 2,400. This subfamily includes the graylings, satyrs, browns, ringlets, and gatekeepers

These butterflies have an erratic, bouncy flight pattern.


These are small- to medium-sized butterflies. Typically they are grey, brown or black with small eyespots on their wings. The antennae are variable, usually with a gradually expanded and scarcely-developed club, but some species have clearly developed clubs. Their forelegs are extremely reduced.

Host plants

The larvae feed chiefly on monocotyledonous plants such as palms, grasses and bamboos.

Milkweed butterflies (Danainae)

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus)

The common name, milkweed butterflies, refers to the use of milkweed as a larval foodplant. The Monarch is the only species of Milkweed butterfly in North America.

This is a small subfamily with a wide range of wing patterns. Adults are robust and brightly coloured.  Usually they contain distasteful from toxic chemicals ingested from their hostplants.


Antennae do not have any scales on them. Male danainae have “hair pencils” on their abdomen that release pheromones attractive to females.

Monarch wings feature an easily recognizable orange and black pattern, with a wingspan of 3½–4 in. Female monarchs have darker veins on their wings, and the males have a spot called the androconium in the center of each hind wing. Males are also slightly larger than female monarchs.

Host plant

Larvae feed on milkweeds and milkweed vines. Some of the milkweeds contain cardiac glycosides which are stored in the bodies of both the caterpillar and adult. These poisons are distasteful and emetic to birds and other vertebrate predators. Adults nectar from flowers including milkweeds, fogfruit, and shepherd’s needle.