Southern Swallowtail (Papilio alexanor)

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2021 photographs highlighted in yellow. Click on any photograph to go to an enlarged picture, or simply scroll down the page.

37842_male_Alpes-Maritimes_19Jun15 35758_female_Alpes-Maritimes_30Jun14 47424_female?_Alpes-Maritimes_16Jul20

37863_male_Alpes-Maritimes_19Jun15 37816_male_Alpes-Maritimes_19Jun15


A very localised species in France, with the main localities being in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. There are some historic sites in Var, which I have visited on numerous occasions, but it may well be that the subspecies destelensis which occurs in Var may now be extinct.

It is principally a species of south-eastern Europe, where it is often common, with isolated populations further west.

It is superficially similar to the Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius), and in some respects it looks like a cross between podalirius and the Swallowtail (P. machaon). The female is usually larger and of a paler yellow. Males, borne out by my very limited experience of this species, are more yellow and can be quite small compared with the females. It is univoltine, the flight period being April to July, depending on altitude, although in Provence the period seems to be mid-June to mid-July.

It is a species that eluded me until 2013. I visited known sites in mid-June but in this late year, when a poor spring left most species about two or three weeks late, I was clearly too early. As I was due to be in the region of another known site in mid-July, I took the opportunity to go there and was not disappointed. There were about six alexanor flying, roughly half males and half females. I observed them for about four hours in total over three days but I have to say that during that entire period not one stopped for any reason, even when the sky became slightly overcast.

In fact, the females were egg-laying on Ptychotis saxifraga but they did this on the wing without stopping. My only chance to get any sort of photograph was to set the camera up to focus on the plant they had been laying on, and wait, and even then I had to use the rapid shoot feature (5 frames per second) and even that did not freeze the subject. So, the photograph 33902 below represented my best effort at this site in 2013.

I revisited this site in 2014 in late June and alexanor was indeed still flying there, still flying non-stop. By pure chance, I had received information as to where alexanor was currently flying in the Alpes-Maritimes and this spot was on my planned route for the next day. I was fortunate to get the exact location (thank you, James W) and was not disappointed. There were several alexanor flying, nectaring on Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) - a favoured nectar source - on a steep rocky scree and not settling even for a moment. However, the butterfly gods often look kindly on persistence, and I was rewarded with a female (35758) that came down to ground level and settled for a few moments.

It is said that alexanor roosts with open wings and I believe that it is the only species to do this.




alt. m

37842 M a fresh male, warming up at the start of the day. It was particularly yellow (compare to the paler yellow of the female 35758), a function of its sex and its freshness. 37863 is the underside. 840
37863 M the underside of 37842. After warming up, it made the short flight to settle on a shrub and afford a view of the underside. 840
47424 F? a chance encounter, as I was not looking for alexanor at the time, and had no real expectation of seeing it. I was in the Tinée valley, a former stronghold of alexanor, although I believe there have been few, if any, recent sightings of it there. So it came as a complete surprise to see 47424 apparently roosting. I believe it is a female based on the paleness of the colouring, although it is clearly at the end of its flight period, so the paleness may just be a function of ageing. 1550
37816 M a male, and a more usual view of this species, flying non-stop up and down the rocky scree and stopping only to nectar on Valerian. 840
35758 F a female, taking a brief respite from constant flying and nectaring. A once-in-a-lifetime moment. 1050


F a female, egg-laying on the larval hostplant Ptychotis saxifraga.


36793 pupa a chrysalis of alexanor. Unusual in that it attached to rock by a silken girdle. 370