Large Tortoiseshell

Nymphalis polychloros (nim-FAY-liss po-lee-KLAW-ross)

Large Tortoiseshell, Littlehampton Bridge, Sussex 26 June 2007
Photo © Neil Hulme
 

Wingspan
Male: 68 - 72mm
Female: 72 - 75mm

Checklist Number
59.029

Family:NymphalidaeSwainson, 1827
Subfamily:NymphalinaeSwainson, 1827
Tribe:NymphaliniSwainson, 1827
Genus:NymphalisKluk, 1780
Subgenus:  
Species:polychloros(Linnaeus, 1758)

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Introduction

In Victorian times the Large Tortoiseshell was considered widespread and common in woodland in southern England. However, this beautiful insect has since suffered a severe decline and there have been less than 150 records since 1951. This butterfly, whose numbers were always known to fluctuate, is generally considered to be extinct in the British Isles, with any sightings considered to be migrants from the continent or accidental or deliberate releases of captive-bred stock. Several causes of its decline have been suggested - including climate change, parasitism, and the effect of Dutch Elm disease on one of its primary foodplants. The hope, of course, is that this butterfly is able to once again colonise our islands. Although previously found in many parts of England, Wales and Scotland, the greatest concentrations were in the midlands, south and east of England. This species has not been recorded from Ireland. Recent sightings have come from the south coast, in particular from South Devon, South Hampshire, the Isle of Wight and West Sussex.

Nymphalis polychloros

This species was first defined in Linnaeus (1758) as shown here (type locality: Sweden).

Large Tortoiseshell - male - Thatcham - 25-Jun-14 [REARED]

Male
Photo © Pete Eeles

Large Tortoiseshell - male - Thatcham - 25-Jun-14 [REARED]-4

Male Underside
Photo © Pete Eeles

Large Tortoiseshell - female - Thatcham - 25-Jun-14 [REARED]-5

Female
Photo © Pete Eeles

Large Tortoiseshell underside, Littlehampton Bridge, Sussex 26 June 2007

Female Underside
Photo © Neil Hulme

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Conservation Status

This species is believed to be extinct as a resident, although sightings are reported in most years which are assumed to be immigrants. As such, no conservation action is relevant.

UK BAP StatusDistribution Trend (%)Population Trend (%)
Not Listed
Stable0
Insufficient Data

The table above shows the distribution and population trends of species regularly found in the British Isles. The distribution trend represents a comparison between data for the periods 1995-1999 and 2005-2009. The information provided is taken from the Butterfly Conservation report The State of the UK's Butterflies 2011. The UK BAP status is taken from the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP) (2007 review).

Habitat

This butterfly is found primarily in woodland, especially those containing sallows whose flowers provide a primary nectar source for the adults in the spring.

Distribution

 

Click here to see the distribution of this species or here to see the distribution of this species together with specific site information overlaid.

Life Cycle

Adults emerge in July and August and overwinter in this stage, re-emerging in the spring. There is one brood each year.

The chart(s) above have been correlated with the phenology plot below, taken from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. The blue line gives average counts over the full data set from 1976 to date, and the red line gives the average for the last year.

Imago

This butterfly hibernates shortly after emerging from the pupa, finding a hibernation site in log piles or outbuildings. On emerging from hibernation in the spring, the butterfly feeds from Sallow flowers and sap runs and the adults mate soon after emerging. This powerful-flyer is often difficult to see when not feeding, as it can be difficult to approach, taking off at high speed at the least disturbance.

Adults feed primarily on Honeydew / Sap.

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Ovum

Eggs are laid in a cluster around a terminal twig of the foodplant, usually 3 metres or more above the ground and on the sunny side of the tree. They are yellow when first laid, but turn brown just before hatching. Eggs hatch in about 3 weeks.

Large Tortoiseshell - ovum - Unknown location - 1993 [REARED] [Tom Sleep]

Photo © Tom Sleep

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Larva

The larvae are gregarious in all of their instars, living in a communal web, although they disperse prior to pupation. When disturbed the entire group will jerk in unison, which is clearly designed to deter predators. Early collectors often obtained this species by collecting the conspicuous larval webs and rearing the offspring through. This stage lasts around a month.

The primary larval foodplant is Elms (various) (Ulmus spp.). Aspen (Populus tremula), Birches (various) (Betula spp.), Poplars (various) (Populus spp.) and Willows (various) (Salix spp.) are also used.

Large Tortoiseshell - larva - Thatcham - 31-May-05 (3) [REARED]

Photo © Pete Eeles
31-May-2005

Large Tortoiseshell - larva - Thatcham - 31-May-05 (2) [REARED]

Photo © Pete Eeles
31-May-2005

Large Tortoiseshell - larva - Thatcham - 10-Jun-05 (2) [REARED]

Photo © Pete Eeles
09-Jun-2005

Large Tortoiseshell - larva - Unknown location - 1993 (2) [REARED] [Tom Sleep]

Photo © Tom Sleep

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Pupa

The pupa is suspended head-down, attached by the cremaster to a twig or other platform. This stage lasts around 2 weeks.

Large Tortoiseshell - pupa - Thatcham - 29-Jun-05 (3) [REARED]

Photo © Pete Eeles
29-Jun-2005

Large Tortoiseshell - pupa - Thatcham - 07-Jun-14 [REARED]-4

Photo © Pete Eeles
07-Jun-2014

Large Tortoiseshell - pupa - Thatcham - 29-Jun-05 [REARED]

Photo © Pete Eeles
29-Jun-2005

Large Tortoiseshell - pupa - Thatcham - 07-Jun-14 [REARED]-3

Photo © Pete Eeles
07-Jun-2014

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Aberrations

Description to be completed.

This section shows those aberrations for which there is a corresponding image. Click here to see the descriptions of other aberrations for this species.

Similar Species

Small Tortoiseshell

Description to be completed.

Videos


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The following links provide additional information on this butterfly.

References

The species description provided here references the following publications:

ReferenceDetails
Kluk (1780) Kluk, K. (1780) Zwierzat domowych i dzikich osobliwie kraiowych historyi naturalney poczatki i gospodarstwo.
Linnaeus (1758) Linnaeus, C. (1758) Systema Naturae. Edition 10.
Swainson (1827) Swainson, W. (1827) A Sketch of the Natural Affinities of the Lepidoptera Diurna of Latreille. The Philosophical magazine : or Annals of chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, natural history and general science.