Longwing or Tiger Heliconian (Heliconius ismenius)
The Tiger Heliconian is just one of many species of the Helconius genus. Among the most elegant of butterflies, they are easily recognized by their long, narrow wings. Most species are fairly easy to see because of their bright colors and preference for sunny forest gaps. The bright colors act as a true warning to birds and other potential predators to stay away, as these butterflies harbor toxins that make them poisonous.
Like most Heliconids, the Tiger Heliconian shares habitats with one or two other extremely similar species that can only be correctly identified in the hand. Identification in the field can at least be narrowed down to this species and its mimics by noting the long, narrow wings that are mostly orange with black stripes on the lower wings. The upper wings have black tips with white spots.
Behavior in Costa Rica
The Tiger Heliconian flutters through the subcanopy of rain forest in search of flowering plants, and Passion Fruit vines for laying its eggs. Like most other “long-winged butterflies”, the Tiger Heliconian utilizes Passiflora species as a host plant for its larvae. When the caterpillars feed upon the leaves of these plants, unlike other insects that would be poisoned, they are able to process the cyanide-like toxins and incorporate them as a biochemical defense against birds.
Habitat and distribution in Costa Rica
The natural habitat of the Tiger Heliconian is the subcanopy of primary rain forest. They are often seen quickly flying through this level of the forest, and are most common in sunny areas such as treefall gaps, along rivers, and at the forest edge. They are easiest to watch in such areas because the flowers they feed upon are especially common in such sunny situations. Their preference for upper levels of the forest is often reflected by their behavior in enclosed butterfly gardens where they frequently flutter higher above other species. The Tiger Heliconian is a common species in humid forested areas of Costa Rica and occurs from the lowlands to middle elevations.