Large Tortoiseshell Butterfly - Nymphalis polychloros

Phylum: Arthropoda - Class: Insecta - Order: Lepidoptera - Family: Nymphalidae

Mourning Cloak Butterfly - Nymphalis antiopa

We saw our first Large Tortoiseshell not in Britain, where this is such a rare butterfly, but in Bulgaria; unfortunately for us, it was a very busy butterfly on a mission, and never once while in our sight did it pause long enough and close enough for a photograph. The only other place that we have seen the Large Tortoiseshell is in the Algarve region of southern Portugal.

Underside of the wings of a Large Tortoiseshell butterfly

The undersides of the wings are cryptically coloured, as seen above, photographed at long range, again in the Algarve. (Getting close enough to one of these very skittish, fast-flying butterflies to take a good photograph is a real challenge!)

At one time this butterfly was a common occurrence in Britain, and the reason for its disappearance (other than the occasional 'lost' migrant or a release from captivity) is unclear. One obvious change is a dramatic reduction in the number of its preferred larval foodplants, various Elm trees (Ulmus species), due to Dutch elm disease.

Large tortoiseshell, southern Portugal

Larger and duller than the Small Tortoiseshell, and lacking the white spot in the corner of the forewing, the Large Tortoiseshell is in fact more closely related to the Camberwell Beauty.

Large Tortoiseshell butterfly, Algarve, Portugal


In Britain this butterfly is now generally considered extinct as a breeding species, with a handful of migrants reported in 'good' years but none at all most years nowadays.

Breeding populations occur across central and southern mainland Europe and in northern Africa as well as into Asia.


Overwintering as hibernating adults, the butterflies emerge and mate in spring, laying their eggs on the leaves of Elms (mainly) and occasionally various other trees of the Populus genus - poplars, aspen etc. Very cccasionally willows (Salix species) are also used.


This page includes pictures kindly contributed by Rob Petley-Jones.

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