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  • Writer's pictureRoo


At this time of year when weekends are filled with raking up leaves in the drizzle and its dark before Ive finished my afternoon cuppa, my mind drifts off to sunnier times with butterflies. I was thinking about Swallowtails, having read in my copy of Patrice Leraut's "Butterflies of Europe" that he regards the Swallowtails on Malta as a subspecies of the Desert Swallowtail Papilio saharae rather than Swallowtail Papilio machaon.

The Swallowtail in Britain, restricted to the Norfolk Broads, is one of my favourite Bristish butterfly species. This is the subspecies britannicus, distinct from the gorganus subspecies that is widely distributed throughout Europe, appearing darker and I believe it has a narrower wingspan, being largely restricted in range and hence not flying over as long distances as gorganus individuals. The latter are frequent "hill-toppers" flying between favoured habitats and being far less fussy that our enedemic subspecies regarding larval host plant and habitat. I've travelled quite widely in Europe and have seen gorganus Swallowtails often, from Spain and France, across to Slovenia and Greece. Ive never noticed consistent differences in morphology of the adult butterflies, including the ones Ive seen on Malta.

P. machaon britannicus (Swallowtail) Norfolk, GB

P. machaon gorganus (Swallowtail) France

P. machaon gorganus (Swallowtail) France (pudddling on silage)

The Swallowtails of Malta are an endemic subspecies melitensis, and this is the national butterfly of Malta. Well chosen in my mind as the species list for resident butterflies on Malta is very limited, being around 18 species. I've visited Malta 14 times for work, and seeing Swallowtails every visit has been a highlight. However I did get peppered with shotgun pellets whilst taking the picture of melitensis Swallowtail shown here! Anyway, I did some digging on the internet and came to the conclusion that the opinion of Patrice Leraut is in a minority, with the melitensis subspecies being mostly attributed to Papilio machaon and not Papilio saharae. Pity, as Ive never seen Desert Swallowtail! The only identification feature I could find that is mostly consistent for splitting P. machaon and P. saharae is the number of antennae segements, being 33-36 for P. machaon and about 30 for P. saharae. Hard to count even on a photograph, but my images of Swallowtails on Malta appear to all have at least 34 segments making them P. m. melitensis. Whatever subspecies they are, they're gorgeous!

P. machaon melitensis (Swallowtail) Malta

Of course there are many, many species of Swallowtail around the world and many subspecies of these species, so this is just a tip of the iceberg, but intrigues me! The Scarce Swallowtail group are just as taxing. Recently the subspecies feisthamelii from Spain, Portugal and just in to SW France has been split from the Scarce Swallowtail Iphiclides podalirius, and named the Iberian Swallowtail I. feisthamelii. Ive seen Iberian Swallowtail in Spain, Portugal and possibly the Ariege in France and Scarce Swallowtail throughout the rest of mainland Europe. Below are photographs of both and they appear very similar to me!

I. fesithamelii (Iberian Swallowtail) Pyrenees

I. podalirius (Scarce Swallowtail) France (looking more yellowish and without an abruptly terminating second black stripe, both this and the picture above were photographed in July)

This year my Swallowtail identification was tested further, splitting Short-tailed Swallowtail from Black Swallowtail in Canada. So to add a little sanity to all of this, here to finish this blog is an Orchard Swallowtail Papilio aegeus in Sydney, Australia!

When all is said and done, the Swallowtails are fantastic butterflies that are always special to see and remind me of happy days watching butterflies on sunny days!

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