Beautiful Cleopatra

Cleopatra (Gonepteryx cleopatra) male
Cleopatra (Gonepteryx cleopatra) male

The Cleopatra is not a butterfly we see in the UK although a few individuals have occasionally appeared in southern England, perhaps as a result of hitch-hiking on a passing ship! (1) It is not markedly different from the Brimstone until the male opens his wings during flight and reveals beautiful orange patches on the yellow fore-wings. These butterflies do not bask with their wings open, so one needs to photograph it in flight to catch the lovely orange discal colours. I always seem to underestimate the necessary shutter speed; the 1/1,600th of a second in the following photograph was too slow! But on the other hand, perhaps the slight blurring suggests movement?! I love the way the butterfly starts to unfurl its proboscis before it arrives at the flower. They demonstrate remarkable dexterity – if that is the right word – in using their proboscis.

Cleopatra butterfly (Gonepteryx cleopatra) male in flight
Cleopatra butterfly (Gonepteryx cleopatra) male in flight

The Cleopatra butterfly is found throughout southern Europe and across all of Spain, from north to south. There are a number of subspecies. These photographs were taken in the village of Pola, in Somiedo National Park, Asturias, Spain. This is a location where minimum temperatures fall to zero (0 deg C) in the winter. The butterflies were however, enjoying the evening sunshine in August of this year, nectaring on these flowers.


The uppersides of the male wings, particularly the fore-wings, of this species strongly reflect light in the ultraviolet region of the spectrum. (2)  Unlike us, butterflies can see UV light and males often use it to show off to females or to discourage would be rivals.  The wings of these butterflies also contain pterin pigments – xanthopterin and erythropterin – which create the bright wing colours. There are also cover scales on the wings, which create structural colours by back-scattering the incident light when it hits a series of microscopic ridges – called nanostructures – on the scales. (3) There is an awful lot more to this structural colour story than I have alluded to here, but it certainly makes for a lovely butterfly.


  2. Wilts, B. D., Pirih, P., & Stavenga, D. G. (2011). Spectral reflectance properties of iridescent pierid butterfly wings. Journal of Comparative Physiology A, 197(6), 693-702.
  3. Wijnen, B., Leertouwer, H. L., & Stavenga, D. G. (2007). Colors and pterin pigmentation of pierid butterfly wings. Journal of insect physiology, 53(12), 1206-1217.


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