Spotted Longwing (Heliconius hecale zuleika)
Heliconius hecale butterflies are found from southern Mexico to Ecuador. This particular species form in Costa Rica, Heliconius hecale zuleika, also lives as far as Nicaragua and Panama.
This butterfly from the longwing family carries several family traits: it is brightly colored, has a conspicuous, non-evasive flight pattern, and often sits with its wings open. The colors warn that this insect is poisonous. Other butterflies have color patterns that mimic Heliconius hecale.
Much of the lower wings and part of the upper wings begin with a bright to rusty orange area close to the abdomen. The outer edges of the wings are black with yellowish-white spots. The rest of the body is black, with rows of yellowish spots starting between the black eyes and extending down the body.
The larvae of this butterfly are white with black spots, long black spines, and yellow-orange heads. The pupa is brown and looks like a dried up leaf.
Biology and Natural History
The female of this species lays her eggs on passion flower vines (such as Passiflora vitifolia). After hatching, the larvae eat the leaves which make the insect un-palatably poisonous (with cyanogenic glycosides and alkaloids). This is why other butterflies look like this one—they look dangerous even if they are not poisonous. The longwing’s poison is not necessarily fatal, but predators that eat this butterfly may feel sick, vomit, and remember to not eat that color pattern a second time.
All butterflies must have a liquid diet, but these butterflies manage to get protein also. This longwing flutters between the orange flowers of Psiguria, where it sticks its proboscis into the flower and pulls out nectar and pollen. The pollen clings to the proboscis in a thick whitish layer which the butterfly will later dissolve in digestive fluids and finally eat. Many other butterflies live for ten days at the most; because H. hecale gets protein in its diet from the pollen and nectar, this butterfly can live for up to nine months.
Since they live longer, the Spotted Longwing has a few behaviors that are relatively complicated for a butterfly. Groups of this butterfly can fly together at night, and sleep near each other in a behavior called ‘dorming,’ which is hanging on the same small branch or clump of vines. Males of this species will wait outside a female’s chrysalis for her to emerge, and when just her abdomen is exposed males try to mate with her before she is fully out of the chrysalis. Sometimes multiple males will attempt to mate with her at the same time or after each other. This will kill her. The female has a pheromone that attracts males, but once a male does mate with her he passes a second pheromone to her that acts as an anti-aphrodisiac so other males are not drawn.
The larvae of the Spotted Longwing feed on several species related to the passionflower. The adult butterflies take nectar and pollen from Psiguira, Gurania, Lantana, and other flowers.
The adult wingspan is 8.4 cm to 9.9 cm.
Goode, Mark R. An Introduction to Costa Rican Butterflies. San José, Costa Rica. 1999. ISBN 9977-12-365-9.
Henderson, Carrol L. Field Guide to the Wildlife of Costa Rica. University of Texas Press, Austin, 2002.
Hogue, Charles L. Latin American Insects and Entomology. University of California Press: Berkely and Los Angeles, 1993.
-Amy Strieter, Wildlife Writer