Spiny Elm Caterpillar

Nymphalis antiopa

Nymphalis antiopa, known as the Mourning Cloak in North America and the Camberwell Beauty in the British Isles, is a large butterfly native to Eurasia and North America. The immature form of this species is sometimes known as the spiny elm caterpillar. Other older names for this species include Grand Surprise and White Petticoat. A powerful flier, this species is sometimes found in areas far from its usual range during migration. It is also the State Insect of Montana.

Appearance and behavior

Nymphalis antiopa has a wingspan of 62–75 mm. The upper side of the butterfly is colored in a very dark red, with a bright, yellowish border around the wings. There is a darker band with bright blue spots between the border and the dark red inner side. Sexes are similar, although the females are slightly larger.

These butterflies lay eggs in clusters around twigs of their favored food plants, in Europe, generally Grey Willow (Salix cinerea) and in North America, generally Black Willow (Salix nigra) but also other willow species, as well as poplar, elm, birch, and hackberry. The larvae feed gregariously, and are black and spiny, with fine white speckles, and a row of red spots running down the back. They disperse to pupate and emerge after about three weeks. Soon after emergence, they will disperse further from their breeding grounds in order to find food (sometimes nectar, but more commonly tree sap) to build up fat stores for hibernation, and will often enter parks and gardens to do so. They are single-brooded and hibernate as adults.

Throughout its range, this species is generally considered a butterfly of woodlands, though it may be occasionally be found in drier areas such as the deserts of western North America. During migration, they may be found in almost any habitat. The Mourning Cloak was adopted as the state butterfly of the State of Montana in 2001.


In North America, N. antiopa ranges from the northern tundra to central Mexico. It is also found throughout continental Europe to eastern Siberia and Japan. Migrants arrive in Great Britain most years during summer and autumn, but numbers are usually very low. There is no evidence that the species breeds in Britain; it is thought that mild, wet winters prevent them from surviving there for very long. The 'Butterfly Farmer' L. Hugh Newman raised thousands for release at his 'farm' in Bexley, but none were seen the following spring. Specimens stored in his refrigerator for the winter survived however.


The American name "Mourning Cloak"

The Danish name is "Sørgekåbe" which literally translates to "Mourning Cloak", suggesting it is name which came with Scandinavian rather than British settlers, for whom this species would be rather less familiar.

The British name "Camberwell Beauty"

The name originated from the discovery of two individuals at Coldharbour Lane in Camberwell in August 1748. Camberwell is in South London, about three miles south of London Bridge—in reporting this, the author Harris named the species Grand Surprise or Camberwell Beauty (Bretherton & Emmet, 1990). It has been suggested that the "pair" were stowaways on ships bringing timber from Scandinavia.

In Popular Culture

The poem Unconscious came a beauty by May Swenson mentions the Mourning cloak (or the similar looking Red spotted purple) - a butterfly that makes her pause and think, while writing. The poem is also a word-picture or iconograph - the lines are laid out to look like a butterfly.



  • Asher, Jim. The Atlas of Butterflies of Britain and Ireland, Oxford University Press.
  • Thomas, Jeremy, and Richard Lewington. The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland, Dorling Kindersley.

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