Gulf Fritillary Butterfly Life Cycle

Egg – Caterpillar – Chrysalis – Butterfly

The time it takes for an egg to hatch depends on the type of butterfly and also the climate. It could take from less than a week to almost three. Most of what I know about butterflies and caterpillars I learned by watching my Gulf Fritillaries. I started raising butterflies after I noticed a butterfly behaving strangely while my husband, Chuck, and I were taking a nature walk. The butterfly would flit around passion vines, land on a leaf, contort its body so that its abdomen touched the leaf, then flit off again. When I went to look at the leaf, I found the small, yellow egg she had deposited there! I brought the egg and leaf home and watched to see what would happen. I have also browsed the web (I like to call it Window shopping) to look for more information about butterflies. So, which came first, the butterfly or the egg? For purposes of this article, let’s start with the egg.


Butterflies lay their eggs on plants that will nourish the caterpillars when they hatch (host plants). Some butterflies place their eggs on one specific plant only, while others may lay them on more than one kind of plant. Even though these are different plants, they are usually of the same family. Some butterflies lay their eggs in clusters or even on top of one another. Some butterflies lay their eggs just one to a leaf or plant. The eggs of butterflies are fascinating. I got a jeweler’s loupe (the small magnifying glass jewelers use to look at precious stones) so I could look more closely at the eggs I found. The Gulf Fritillary egg looks like a miniature ear of corn or maybe a barrel cactus (without the spines).


When the tiny caterpillar hatches, the first thing it does is start to eat. It will, sometimes, even eat its egg shell! At first, it is so small; it can only eat a thin layer of the leaf. The leaf will look transparent or lacy. As it grows, though, it can munch through a leaf with no problem. To me, it looks like it is eating corn on the cob. As it eats and eats, it grows. It will outgrow its skin several times during this phase. It will continue to eat its entire caterpillar cycle except when it is changing its skin and for the last day or so before changes into a chrysalis. When it is time to change skins, it will sit still then start to wriggle. The skin splits open at the head and the caterpillar squirms its way out. The Gulf Fritillary caterpillar is oranges with black stripes and spines, but just after it sheds its old skin, its spines are yellow until its new skin is ready. It then turns around and eats its old skin. The Gulf Fritillary caterpillar looks the same after each of its moldings, but some caterpillars change their appearance from molt to molt. When the caterpillar is ready to molt one last time and become a chrysalis, it stops eating and starts roaming around, looking for a suitable place to attach itself. It will undulate around, over and under leaves and nearby structures, natural and man-made. I provide passion vines for my ‘pillars and also branches for when they feel the urge. They will wander up, down and around for a day or two until they decide it’s time. I’ve had pillars wander off the ranch and wind up in odd places. Twice, ‘pillars have attached themselves to the pedestal base of our office chair and once, one attached itself to the drain rack next to the kitchen sink. When one of the ‘pillars get restless and start roaming, I tell my husband, “We’ve got a runner!” When it chooses the place where it will transform into a chrysalis, it will rest for a bit, and then start laying down silk. It moves its head back and forth over the same spot to build up a small pad to attach itself to. It also will spin silk out to the sides (and around if it’s on a twig) to help secure the pad. When it has finished the pad, it will rest again then attach it self to the pad. It has a special appendage on the end of its body designed specifically for this purpose. It will then slowly let go of the leaf or twig and wind up handing in a distinctive “J” shape. Not all ‘pillars prepare to become a chrysalis in this fashion.


As it hangs there, it begins to turn white, almost like it is blistering. This visits skin detaching itself from the chrysalis underneath. The head of the chrysalis will peak through the skin and it will begin wiggling and moving its body in waves to move the loose skin up to the place where it has attached itself. It will gyrate until it knocks the skin loose. At this point it is waxy looking until it finishing drying out. After it dries, it looks like a dead leaf hanging on a twig. My Gulf Fritillaries are in the chrysalis stage, on average, eight days. If they were out in the wild, they would be completely vulnerable to any predator as they have absolutely no defenses. They can twitch and they do change positions. One day one will be pointing to the left, and the next day it will be pointing right. When it is ready to become a butterfly, the chrysalis becomes dark and almost transparent.


When the butterfly is ready to emerge from its chrysalis, it will break through head first, upside down and crawl up on the empty chrysalis to hang so that its wings are at the lowermost point. At this point, its antennae are lying back against its body and its wings are crumpled up. As it hangs there, its wings begin to unfold and straighten out. The butterfly inflates it wings until they are smooth and flat. It then waits for its wings to dry and harden before taking off. The antennae straighten out and stick straight out from its head. It has extra fluid in its body that it releases before it flies off. This was shocking to see the first time it happened, I thought my butterfly was injured until I researched it. Another time as I was watching a newly hatched butterfly, I thought its tongue (proboscis) looked strange. It looked as though it had two tongues. I thought we had a mutation! I later read that the butterfly’s tongue develops in two halves which come together to form the tube through which it drinks nectar. We did have one actual mutation. One of our butterflies hatched with only three wings. One of its hind wings was missing. Unfortunately, it was unable to fly. Hatching Sequence Pictures Right now we only have passion vines and honeysuckles in our yard. When we had sunflowers and zinnias growing, we had more Gulf Fritillaries and other butterflies flying around. The adult butterfly only lives about four weeks. In that time, it must feed and find a mate. The female must find passion vines to lay her eggs. I’ve noticed that our mature passion vines seem to be home to at least three different kinds of ants, and I think that’s why the female Gulf Fritillary lays her eggs on the small sucker plants that pop up around the more mature plants. Since she only lays one or two eggs per plant, the little caterpillars have a nice tender plant to munch on and can move on to the bigger plants as they get bigger. And so begins another cycle. Butterfly eggs are found on butterfly plant. Several of these books describe the phenomenon of Butterfly metamorphosis from egg to Butterfly. Included are books on backyard bugs and creating a Butterfly Garden so you can observe this transformation first.