Variegated Fritillary Caterpillar

2008 February 23

S_ was growing some petunias in pots on the south side of the house last spring, and one day noticed that she had quite an infestation of some pretty eye-catching caterpillars. You can see three of them just in this one picture[1], there were probably a dozen or so in total:


In addition to being brightly colored, they were covered with black, spiky protruberances:



When touched, they immediately curled up in a ball, with the spikes sticking out, and stayed that way a long time


A distinctive caterpillar like this is a snap to identify, because people take pictures of them all the time. It is a Variegated Fritillary, Euptoieta claudia, and Bug Guide has pages and pages of pictures of the caterpillars, pupae, and adults. Of course, I didn’t know what they were at the time, now I’m sorry we didn’t try to rear some of them to get pictures of the whole life cycle.

I’m a little surprised that I can’t find any reference to fritillary caterpillars eating petunias, either on BugGuide or in “Caterpillars of Eastern North America”. They’re supposed to be more partial to violets and pansies. In fact, about the only reference to a similar caterpillar that does eat petunias is way down near the bottom of this list of butterfly foodplants – they say that the common buckeye caterpillar eats petunias. The thing is, the common buckeye caterpillar looks generally similar to the fritillary caterpillar, but the colors are wrong and it doesn’t have the particularly elongated spikes over the head that the fritillary does.

At any rate, I know that I’ve seen the variegated fritillary adults flying around, they are very common, and if it wasn’t for the whole food plant issue I’d have no doubt at all about what these caterpillars were. They evidently breed fast enough that they have about three generations per year, and so we see the adults pretty much all summer long.

[1] I tried photographing these on their food plant, without the macro lens, because its limited focus travel and bulkiness make the lens awkward to use. While the pictures came out good enough to identify the caterpillars, I’m a bit disappointed with the level of detail. I need to either practice using the macro lens in the field, or be sure to bring things indoors to use the macro rig, even if they are fairly good-size insects.

25 Responses
  1. March 6, 2008

    Those are some really awesome caterpillars! Macro or not, I think the detail came out rather well, and they look really cool.

    Very nice.

  2. Joan permalink
    June 12, 2008

    Thanks, this helped find out what was eating our pansies..
    Any recommended control?

  3. June 12, 2008

    A lot of people seem to be just as happy with large, attractive butterflies as with flowers, and so I’m not aware of much in the way of attempts to eradicate these. Some people might even go as far as specifically planting pansies specifically to cultivate fritillary caterpillars. In our case, they never got numerous enough to kill the flowers, so we just let them go. They are pretty easy to spot, so I expect that picking them off and disposing of them would be pretty easy in a small flower patch. For that matter, any standard insecticide or insecticidal soap would probably clear them off, if desired.

  4. Ann permalink
    June 23, 2008

    Hi, this weekend in PA near Philadelphia my son found a caterpillar that looked similar to this one but with black areas on the body also. I am trying to find a picture of it for him so that we can identify it. Do you have any ideas on other similar caterpillars? Could you replay by e mail? I probably won’t find this site again. I have about ten windows open right now.

    Thanks, Ann

  5. Shala permalink
    August 2, 2008

    thank you SO much for these photos and identification! i have been searching and searching and frying my eyeballs trying to identify this caterpillar! we have one currently in chrysalis and it is gorgeous! no way would i kill these beauties. just plant more pansies so the caterpillars can have some and so can you!

  6. March 30, 2009

    I’ve been enjoying reading your posts and wondered if you’d be interested in a site I just started. Its purpose is to learn about the life cycles of insects, and document them with photos. You talk a lot about the life cycles of the insects you find, so I thought you might like to see the site, and maybe contribute to it. Here’s the link:
    It’s pretty new, so we’re trying to get the word out that we exist. We’d love to have more readers and more contributors! Let me know if you’re interested!

  7. May 13, 2009

    Thank you! This was driving me nuts! I found one of these little guys on my maypop vine. I suspected it was a Variegated Fritillary, because it looked so similar to the Gulf Fritillary caterpillars that usually eat the vine. But I couldn’t find a picture anywhere. I’m attempting to raise him in a nice little container on my porch now. I was doing it just to confirm my suspicions that it was a Variegated Frit, but now I’ll probably put the little guy out on the vine again. Then again, if he’s happy in the box, I’d love a picture once he grows up.

    Thanks again!

    Jess Granger

  8. Cinnamon permalink
    October 19, 2009

    Thank you so much! I saw one of these at work today and had to take its picture. It was simply beautiful.

  9. katlyn permalink
    July 6, 2010

    thanx this helped so much!!!!!!!:)

  10. Michelle B. permalink
    April 1, 2012

    Thanks for the pictures! I have about twenty of these caterpillars in my pansies right now in north central Texas. I’m glad to finally know what they are. The pansies are wilting in the 85+ degree heat so I’ll just let the caterpillars have them.

  11. Shala C permalink
    April 1, 2012

    We have had some early butterflies on sap in early March. But it is so hot here in Southeast NE that I will probably give pansies a miss this year. But we have some lovely violets, purple, blue and white; so hoping they will be happy with those.

  12. April 2, 2012

    Yow, I didn’t realize the season was so advanced in Texas (her in northern Michigan we are still getting freezing temperatures most nights, and the pussy willows are just now blooming).

    This reminds me that we should probably put out some pansies, violets, and petunias soon to see if we can get some more fritillary caterpillars.

  13. Michelle B. permalink
    April 5, 2012

    We are having warmer temps in TX earlier than usual this spring; although it was 49 degrees this morning which is chilly to me. Just missed all the tornado action on Tuesday. Thank goodness!

  14. May 1, 2012

    You can’t believe it i found like 3 or 4 when my neighbor was gardening she asked what is it i told her it is a catapillar with spikes.

  15. brittany permalink
    May 8, 2012

    Thanks u helped me figure out what kind of caterpillar was on my little sisters plants was so now every day we are going outside and watching what it does and for a 3 year old girl it is fasinating so again thanks!!!!!!! 🙂

  16. xileph0n permalink
    June 3, 2012


  17. Julie permalink
    June 24, 2012

    Heck yeah,
    This is the caterpillar I had on my pansies, too! I am raising it in a little bug house. It is in the pupa stage right now–super cool slivery–looking, and I am wondering if it will come out before I leave for a trip in a week. I hope so. I would hate to miss it! Anyone know how long they are in that stage? June 19th was when it pupated. Thanks!

  18. June 25, 2012

    Julie: It will probably be pretty close timing. Similar butterflies, like monarchs, take almost exactly two weeks to pupate. If it comes out before you leave, it will probably be *just* before you leave. If it is in a jar, maybe you could take it with you? Good luck!

  19. July 2, 2012

    These crazy little guys keep eating my blue passion flower leaves. especially the new growths.

  20. JoeAnna permalink
    October 28, 2012

    do they come to butterfly.

  21. Cathy Rigney permalink
    July 2, 2015

    what butterfly do they turn into please let me know thank you

  22. porsche permalink
    September 6, 2015

    Is they dangerous

  23. S. C> permalink
    October 9, 2015

    I would not say that this caterpillar is dangerous; but anytime you handle a caterpillar with spines; care should be taken. “Fluffy” caterpillars can also have hairs that can cause a reaction. We currently have a Yellow Woolly Bear and, while not dangerous to handle, I do feel some pricking.

    There is a caterpillar that is quite dangerous to handle. It is the Puss Moth Caterpillar. It is very hairy. A friend of mine had a bad reaction when handling one.

    My suggestion is not to grab spiky or hairy caterpillars as it may cause an allergic reaction, plus it can damage the caterpillar.

    Have fun!

  24. Rachael permalink
    August 16, 2016

    I have 8 of em and 3 are currently in a cocoon. Sooo exited for the butterflies

  25. Bob R Ressler permalink
    September 11, 2018

    I took a pic of one today, looked it up and it was this species

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