A provisional checklist of European butterfly larval foodplants

For the first time, a list of the currently accepted plant names utilised by 471 European butterfly larvae is presented, with references.

Guest blog post by Harry E. Clarke, Independent Researcher

5th instar Swallowtail larvae feeding on Milk-parsley.

Many books on butterflies publish lists of their larval foodplants. However, many of these lists of larval foodplants have been copied from previous lists, which in turn have been copied from previous lists. Consequently, errors have crept in, and many plant names have long been superseded. This can result in duplicates in the list, with the same plant being given two different names. Most plant lists do not include the authority, which can make it difficult or impossible to identify which plant is being referred to. Some of these plants may not be used by butterflies in Europe, but elsewhere in their range. Or the plants may have been used in breeding experiments, but not used by the butterflies in the wild.

Many of these publications providing the larval foodplants of butterflies only provide the binomial name, without specifying the author. This can create problems in knowing which species of plant is being used, as the same plant name has been used in the past by different authors to describe different species. In some cases, distribution can be used to determine the correct species, but plants can often have similar distributions. For example, in the World Checklist of Vascular Plants, there are 40 entries for the plant with the scientific name Centaurea paniculata, which refer to thirteen different accepted species, depending on authors, subspecies, and variety or form.

Not quite so simple: updating the current lists of larval foodplants

With climate change and habitat loss threatening numerous species, the conservation of butterflies (and other animals) is becoming more important. Whilst many factors determine the distribution of butterflies, such as temperature and rainfall, their survival depends solely on the kinds of plants their larvae eat. Accurate lists of larval foodplants are therefore important to find out where to direct limited conservation resources for the best result.

What started out as a straightforward job of updating the existing lists of larval foodplants with currently accepted names turned out to be a far bigger job. Many of the lists are incomplete, and may vary throughout the range of the butterfly. Here, errors have crept in too. Many references provide incomplete, unverifiable information. Many species of butterfly lay their eggs off-host, rather than on the host plant. For example, the Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia)oviposits on tree trunks above where Viola species are growing. Consequently, oviposition records need to be treated with caution, depending on the species.

What do butterfly larvae eat, and why does it matter?

Butterfly larvae can be very fussy about which plants they can use. 20% of European butterfly larvae are monophagous, feeding on just one species of plant. 50% are oligophagous, feeding on a few different closely related plants, whilst 30% are polyphagous feeding on plants in many different families. The Holy Blue (Celastrina argiolus) can utilise plants in an astonishing 19 different families.

The oligophagous butterflies can be divided into two groups:

  • Oligophagous-monophagous (OM) – feeding on one plant species in one region, and another species in another region.
  • Oligophagous-polyphagous (OP) – feeding on several closely related species of plants throughout their range, usually in the same genus, or a closely related genus.
4th instar Small Tortoiseshell feeding on Common Nettle.

Plant preferences are only known for a few species of butterflies. For example, the English race of the Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) feeds on Milk-parsley (Peucedanum palustre), whereas in the rest of Europe it has been recorded on 62 other plants. The main larval foodplant of the Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) is Common Nettle(Urtica dioica), although it will occasionally use other plants.

The survivability of larvae on different plants is largely unknown, except in a few cases where the butterfly species has been studied in detail. There are plants that larvae may be able to eat, but that would likely not help them survive to pupation.

Two species are known to switch their larval foodplant during their second year of development. The Scarce Fritillary (Euphydryas maturna),for example, switches from Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) to Guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus). The Northern Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus centaureae) switches from Dwarf birch (Betula nana) to Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus).

The most delicious plants

For the first time, a list of the current accepted plant names utilised by 471 European butterfly larvae is presented, with references. Where possible, errors in previous lists have been removed. The list of larval foodplants doubled compared to previous published lists. This has resulted in a list of 1506 different plant species in 72 different families. 86 plant records are only known at the generic level. Larval foodplants of 25 butterfly species are currently unknown, which are mostly the “Browns” (Satyrinae), which probably feed on grasses (Poaceae), or possibly sedges (Cyperaceae).

Whilst most plant families are utilised by less than six butterfly species, a few plant families are particularly favoured, with grasses (Poaceae) and legumes (Fabaceae) being the most popular. Similarly, most plant species are only utilised by a few butterfly species, but the fine grasses Sheep’s Fescue (Festuca ovina) and Red Fescue (Festuca rubra) are favoured by a large number of butterfly species.

Taxonomic splits create problems. Where cryptic species are allopatric, records can be allocated on the basis of their distribution. But where cryptic species are sympatric, this will require a resurvey to determine the larval foodplants. It cannot be assumed that two cryptic butterfly species use the same plants, as something has to become different for them to evolve into separate species.

Looking forward

Future publications should ensure that old and ambiguous plant names are not used. Plant names should be specified with their full scientific name, as specified by the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants. The World Checklist of Vascular Plants should be checked to ensure the currently accepted plant name is being used.

Fully documented records are needed of what larval foodplants butterfly larvae are utilising in the wild. To get a better understanding of usage, full details need to be recorded, including date, location, altitude, abundance, and larval stage. Abundance will help in the understanding of preferences. To allow records to be properly verified, evidence should be provided on how the larvae and plants were identified. Regional lists are also important – to help direct conservation efforts to the plants being used locally, rather than elsewhere. This list of larval foodplants is provided as a step towards a fully justified database, which will be updated as and when corrections are found. It highlights those 25 butterfly species whose larval foodplants are currently unknown.

4th instar Chequered Skipper (Carterocephalus palaemon) larvae feeding on Purple Moor-grass (Molinia caerulea).

Research article:

Clarke HE (2022) A provisional checklist of European butterfly larval foodplants. Nota Lepidopterologica 45: 139-167. https://doi.org/10.3897/nl.45.72017

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