Plain tiger (Danaus chrysippus)

Also known as: African queen, Lesser wanderer
GenusDanaus (1)
SizeWingspan: 6 – 8 cm (2)

This species has yet to be assessed by the IUCN.

This beautifully bright butterfly has captivated humankind’s attention since it was first depicted in an Egyptian tomb 3,500 years ago, making it the first ever butterfly to be recorded in history. Its striking tawny-orange colouration serves as a warning to predators that this species is distasteful, which ultimately deters predators from attacking (3). Framing the startlingly orange hues is a bold black border interlaced with white specks. At first sight the sexes appear very similar, although upon closer inspection one can see the males are slightly smaller than the females. The males can also be distinguished by the presence of a black scent-producing pouch located in the lower-centre of the hind wing; on the underside of the wing it appears as a white-centred black patch. In addition, the males have a pair of brush-like organs hidden within the abdomen, which are used in reproduction (2).

Similar to the adult butterfly, the plain tiger caterpillar has extremely vivid colouration which also acts as a warning signal protecting it from bird attacks. As the caterpillar grows it attains ten horizontal black bands interspersed with paired yellow spots, as well as acquiring three pairs of long, black, tentacle-like appendages, which sometimes become a deep crimson at the base (4). The fully grown caterpillar then forms a pupa which can range from a green-brown colour in a normal environment to a pink colour if the surroundings are dry or unnatural. A horizontal band of miniscule black and golden specks decorate the abdominal segment of the pupa (5).

This butterfly has an extensive range and can be found throughout the Old World tropics, from Africa to Southeast Asia and even Australasia (1). Recently it has been discovered that there are three subspecies; Danaus chrysippus chrysippus is found in Asia and tropical Africa, Danaus chrysippus alcippus ranges from the Cape Verde Islands, across Africa to Oman, and Danaus chrysippus orientis is predominantly found in tropical Africa and the surrounding islands including Madagascar and the Seychelles (3).

The plain tiger inhabits open, fairly arid areas rather than the moisture drenched habitats typical of the jungles found in the Old World. Unlike other members of the Danaus genus, the plain tiger often flies in open sunlight, even at the hottest point of the day (2). Throughout its life as a caterpillar, it can be found wherever species of the milkweed family (Asclepiadoideae) grow, particularly on its favoured species, the crown flower (Calotropis gigantea) (4).

The plain tiger is able to breed throughout the year, but with greater frequency during or just after the monsoon season (4) (5). The female plain tiger is incredibly careful when laying eggs, and will feel out the leaf with her abdomen to test its suitability (2) (4). The female can lay up to 12 eggs on the same plant, although the eggs are laid singly to avoid overcrowding, usually on the undersides of leaves of the preferred milkweed species, Calotropis gigantea (2) (4) (5). After about five days the caterpillars hatch and devour the egg shell before proceeding to eat the leaves they were hatched on. The caterpillars are able to feed openly throughout the day due to their bright colouration which protects them from any nearby bird or reptile predators (4).

Due to feeding on an array of milkweed species, the plain tiger caterpillar accumulates unpalatable alkaloids which induce vomiting in its predators. These toxins are passed on to the adult through the pupal stage, where metamorphosis lasts six to seven days (4). Even when attacked, the plain tiger is blessed with having an extremely tough leathery skin which makes it harder to kill, and, if caught, it will play dead and release a nauseating smell. Whilst an inexperienced predator is still likely to attack, it will learn to avoid the plain tiger once experiencing how foul tasting it is. Another interesting habit of the plain tiger is its slow meandering flight, which gives a potential predator time to recognise the species before it makes the mistake of attacking (2) (5). Remarkably, other butterflies have learnt to mimic the plain tiger’s protection mechanisms in order to escape predation; one particularly good mimic is the female danaid eggfly (Hypolimnas misippus) (2) (6).

At present the plain tiger is not known to be facing any threats (2) (4) (5).

As of yet, there are no conservation measures for this widespread and abundant species (2) (4) (5).

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. UNEP-WCMC (November, 2009)
  2. Butterflies of Sri Lanka (October, 2009)
  3. Smith, D.A.S., Lushai, G. Allen, J.A. (2005) A classification of Danaus butterflies (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae) based upon data from morphology and DNA. Zoological Journal of the Linnaean Society, 144(2): 191-212.
  4. Kumar, A., Bohra, C.P. and Singh, L.K. (2003) Environment, Pollution and Management. APH Publishing, New Delhi.
  5. Kunte, K. and Gadgil, M. (2000) Butterflies of Peninsular India. Universities Press Private Limited, Hyderabad.
  6. Schulz, S., Boppré, M. and Vane-Wright, R.I. (1993) Specific mixtures of secretions from male scent organs of African milkweed butterflies (Danainae). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 342: 161-181.