The African Monarch Butterfly
If you have been on a safari in Africa in summer, you have most likely seen the bright, orange, black and white butterflies flying around. The African monarch (Danaus chrysippus) is also known as the plain tiger or African queen because of its vibrant colours. It is a medium-sized butterfly that is found widely through Asia, Australia and Africa.
Male and female monarch butterflies look very similar and are also similar in size. Adult butterflies typically have a wingspan of 75 mm. The bodies of adults are about 23 mm long, and their antennae are about 12 mm long. Depending on the temperature of the environment, males live about 10–15 days and females live about 7–12 days.
The monarch butterfly's body is black with white spots. The wings are bright orange with black and white markings. In the middle of the wing, there are 3 characteristic black spots. These bright colours are used as a defence know as aposematic colouration. These colours are a symbol of danger to any potential threat. This usually relates to a poison or toxin of some kind and often seen in frog and insect species. The African monarch takes this one step further by flying relatively slow and low to the ground, making sure that their bright colours are seen!
During the larvae phase, the monarch mainly eats milkweed plants containing toxic compounds which are stored by the butterflies. Because of this, it is unpalatable to most predators and can make them sick.
Once a predator tries to eat the monarch, a distasteful liquid oozes out forcing the predator to spit it out. The monarch's tough leathery skin protects them enough until they are in the clear. The predator will remember this event and will learn its lesson, avoiding them in the future. This has led to the evolution of several other species which mimic the monarch butterfly to benefit from the protection given by such bright colouration. In the Lowveld, the female Diadem butterfly is known for mimicking the African monarch butterfly. They do look remarkably similar, however, they lack the spots on the wings.
The monarch butterfly is believed to be one of the first butterflies depicted in art. A 3500-year-old ancient Egyptian fresco in Luxor features the oldest known illustration of this species. A true testament to its beauty.