The Flying Handkerchief / Mocker Swallowtail Butterfly

Papilio dardanus

Not only is the Mocker Swallowtail one of the biggest and most beautiful butterflies to be found in South Africa, but it can also be one of the most confusing! The males, also known as Flying Handkerchiefs, boast extravagantly shaped wings with striking black and cream-white markings, while the females are excellent at mimicking at least 14 other species of foul-tasting or poisonous butterfly across their sub-Saharan African distribution, with their comparably larger size usually the best clue to their true identity. Adults have a wingspan measuring up to 11cm and fly throughout the year, though much less numerous in the cooler months.

The Mocker Swallowtail inhabits riverine, montane and coastal forests. In South Africa it is commonly found from the Garden Route, through Kwazulu-Natal and along the escarpment of Mpumalanga and Limpopo to the Soutpansberg range.

Larvae feed on a wide range of food plants from the Rutaceae family which includes citrus plants. The feminine progeny of a single female can metamorphose into a variety of mimic forms and don’t necessarily all look like their mother. Larvae grow quickly and complete their transformation within a few weeks.

32 thoughts on “The Flying Handkerchief / Mocker Swallowtail Butterfly

  1. naturebackin

    I did not know that about the female mimicry – I assume that is where the name ‘mocker’ comes from? I fairly often see butterflies with the male colouration here in our garden but they flit about so fast seldom resting so that they are very difficult to photograph. I will try to look out for larger butterflies that might be females in some of their various forms!

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    1. de Wets Wild Post author

      The females appear much more relaxed than the males – perhaps because they mostly resemble other butterflies that aren’t readily included in the menu of their enemies. Getting the males to sit still for a photograph proved very tricky – seemed the cool of early morning with a damp in the air was the best time to get them to co-operate.

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      1. Leya

        Isn’t it? I had a good friend who managed to grow one in his own garden – unfortunately he sold his house, and I don’t know if the tree is still there. Otherwise we have it in some of our botanical gardens.

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    1. de Wets Wild Post author

      It’s genetic, John and typically the species the females “impersonate” are either unpalatable or poisonous, so it probably evolved through natural selection over countless generations. Interestingly females of several forms may come from the same batch of eggs, the daughters don’t even have to imitate the same species their mother does, so until they emerge from the pupae it’s anyone’s guess what mimic will appear!

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  2. Anne

    We are beginning to see more butterflies in our garden. Until my eyes come right after my operations and I get new spectacles in May I am enjoying them without trying to photograph them. Your photographs are lovely to look at – I can take time over them πŸ™‚

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  3. Jane

    The Flying Handkerchief… a good name; but, just don’t get too close to someone in tears or with a cold!
    Seriously, fascinating facts. I’m surprised by ability to find them year-long, their size, and quick time for transformation! ~Jane

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