Apollo butterfly (Parnassius autocrator)

GenusParnassius (1)
SizeMale forewing length: 2.9 cm (2)
Female forewing length: 3.4 cm (2)

The apollo butterfly is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).

This attractive butterfly differs from some of the other Parnassius butterflies in that it lacks distinctive red wing spots, as seen on Parnassius apollo (2). Instead, the female has wide, brilliant orange patches on the upper hindwing and the male has a wavy yellow-orange line of markings (2). Both the forewings and hindwings are chalky white with shadowy black markings, and a row of black crescent-shaped markings decorate the edge of the hindwing (2). 

Parnassius autocrator occurs only in Afghanistan and Tajikistan (1). It can be found at high altitudes (around 3,000 metres above sea level) in the Hindu Kush area of north-eastern Afghanistan and the equally isolated Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan (2).

This high-altitude butterfly lives on steep-sided slopes where its preferred food plant, Corydalis adiantifolia, occurs. Parnassius autocrator can tolerate a rather harsh climate, as its mountain habitat has hot, dry summers and cold, snowy winters (2).

Parnassius autocrator has a one-year life-cycle, which may be one reason for its rarity as the one-year cycle provides less opportunity to disperse (3). The flight period of this species begins in the second week of July and lasts around a month (2). Interestingly, the plant on which the larvae feed, Corydalis adiantifolia, is one which barely protrudes above ground when the time comes for the female to lay its eggs (4). So, instead of using its sight, the Apollo butterfly apparently finds its way to the plant by detecting the smell of the underground tubers. The female lays her eggs on the ground near the plants and when the larvae emerge in spring, they feed on the leaves of the plant (4).

Male and female Apollo butterflies differ in their behaviour; while females flutter close to the ground around the food plants, settling on stones or thistles to rest and taking flight at the slightest disturbance, the males are far more active and tend to fly up and down the steep slopes, soaring about a metre above the ground (2).

Although little is known about the beautiful Parnassius autocrator due to its rarity and the inhospitable environment it inhabits, the capture of this species, which is highly-prized by collectors, could pose a threat (5) (6). Overgrazing by sheep and goats could also threaten this species’ survival as it degrades the butterfly’s habitat and depletes its foodplant Corydalis adiantifolia (2).

Parnassius autocrator was listed on Afghanistan’s Protected Species List in 2009, meaning that all hunting and trading of this species is now banned (1). More information is needed about this species’ distribution, biology and habitat requirements, which could form the basis of a conservation plan (2).

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (October, 2010)
  2. Collins, N.M. and Morris, M.G. (1985) Threatened Swallowtail Butterflies of the World. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.
  3. Churkin, S. (2009) Notes on Parnassius Latreille, 1804 from Tian-Shan and Alai Part 3: Parnassius charltonius Gray, 1852. Atalanta, 40: 1-25.
  4. Tebbitt, M., Lidén, M. and Zetterlund, H. (2008) Bleeding Hearts, Corydalis and their Relatives. Timber Press, Portland.
  5. Shank, C. (2008) Biodiversity Profile of Afghanistan. United Nations Environment Programme, Kabul.
  6. Weiss, J.C. (1991) The Parnassiinae of the World. Part 1. Sciences Nat, Venette, France.