Under Construction

Heliconius sapho (Drury 1782)

Andrew V. Z. Brower and Margarita Beltrán
Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window
Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window
Containing group: Heliconius


Heliconius sapho is a member of the pupal-mating clade of Heliconius butterflies. It occurs in Central and northwestern South America to the west of the Andes. It is a Müllerian mimic with H. cydno, which exhibits parallel geographical variation in the mimetic wing pattern.

Etymology:  Sappho was an early Greek poet who lived on the island of Lesbos in the Aegean sea. She ran a school for upper-class young women. Many believe that her poetry shows that she was attracted to her students. Though only a small part of her work has reached us, its raw emotional honesty is timeless. Other (male) poets of the time respected her, and the renowned Greek philosopher Plato was a fan; he called Sappho "The Tenth Muse", giving her near-goddesslike status (Sappho).


Early stages: Eggs are yellow or white and approximately 1 x 0.7 mm (h x w).  Females usually place 10 to 40 eggs on growing shoots of the host plant. Mature larvae have a yellow body, with black scoli and head; length is around 0.3 cm. Caterpillars are gregarious (Brown, 1981). Pupae are pale yellow to pale brown, with well-marked black veins and black spines. Pupation often takes place in groups (DeVries, 1997).

Adults: H. sapho has iridescent black wings with a variety of white bands on fore- or fore and hindwings. It can be easily distinguished from its co-mimic H. cydno by the ventral surface of the hindwings, which exhibit basal red rays and no brown bars (see title illustration). Forewing length: 38-42 mm.

Geographical Distribution

Heliconius sapho is distributed from Central America to Ecuador. This map shows an approximate representation of the geographic distribution of this species. The original data used to draw these maps are derived from Brown (1979) which is available at Keith S. Brown Jr. (1979). Ecological Geography and Evolution in Neotropical Forests.

Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window
Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window

Distribution of Heliconius sapho © 2002 Margarita Beltran.


H. sapho occurs from sea level to 2,000 m in dense forest.  Usually individuals fly rapidly and in the canopy. Males often defend territories in small light gaps.  The males sit on female pupae a day before emergence, and mating occurs the next morning, before the female has completely eclosed. Adults roost at night in large groups on twigs or tendrils over water (Brown, 1981).

Host plant: H. sapho larvae feed primarily on plants from the genus Passiflora, subgenus Astrophea (Brown, 1981). In Costa Rica H. s. leuce utilize Passiflora pittieri (DeVries, 1997).

Geographical Races

Heliconius sapho exhibits several discrete geographical races over its range, as follows:

H. hewitsoni, which occurs on the Pacific slope of Costa Rica and western Panama is closely-related to H. sapho and considered a race/subspecies of the latter by Lamas (2004).


Brown, K. S., Jr. 1979 Ecologia Geográfica e Evolução nas Florestas Neotropicais. Campinas, São Paulo, Brasil: Universidade Estadual de Campinas.

Brown K. S. 1981 The Biology of Heliconius and Related Genera. Annual Review of Entomology 26, 427-456.

DeVries P. J. 1997 The Butterflies of Costa Rica and Their Natural History, Volume I: Papilionidae, Pieridae, Nymphalidae Princeton University Press, Baskerville, USA.

Drury D. 1782 Illustrations of Natural History. Wherein are exhibited upwards of two hundred and forty [two hundred and twenty; two hundred] figures of exotic insects, according to their different genera; very few of which have hitherto been figured by any author, being engraved and coloured from nature, with the greatest accuracy, and under the author's own inspection, on fifty copper-plates. With a particular description of each insect: interspersed with remarks and reflections on the nature and properties of many of them. London, B. White. 3: xxvi + 76 + [2] pp., 50 pls.

Lamas, G. (ed.) 2004 Atlas of Neotropical Lepidoptera. Checklist: Part 4A Hesperioidea - Papiionoidea. Gainesville: Scientific Publishers/Association of Tropical Lepidoptera.

"Sappho" Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sappho [Accessed Jul 21, 2008].

Title Illustrations
Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window
Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window
Scientific Name Heliconius sapho leuce
Location captive, Botanical Garaden, Munich, Germany
Specimen Condition Live Specimen
Identified By Andrew V. Z. Brower
Life Cycle Stage adult
View ventral
Source IMG_1802
Source Collection Flickr
Image Use creative commons This media file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License - Version 2.0.
Copyright © 2008 Marc Aurel
Scientific Name Heliconius sapho
Specimen Condition Live Specimen
Source Heliconius cydno
Source Collection Flickr
Image Use creative commons This media file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License - Version 2.0.
Copyright © 2002 Wes Kalinowski
About This Page

Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, USA

University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

Correspondence regarding this page should be directed to Andrew V. Z. Brower at and Margarita Beltrán at

Page: Tree of Life Heliconius sapho (Drury 1782). Authored by Andrew V. Z. Brower and Margarita Beltrán. The TEXT of this page is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution License - Version 3.0. Note that images and other media featured on this page are each governed by their own license, and they may or may not be available for reuse. Click on an image or a media link to access the media data window, which provides the relevant licensing information. For the general terms and conditions of ToL material reuse and redistribution, please see the Tree of Life Copyright Policies.

Citing this page:

Brower, Andrew V. Z. and Margarita Beltrán. 2008. Heliconius sapho (Drury 1782). Version 12 August 2008 (under construction). http://tolweb.org/Heliconius_sapho/72940/2008.08.12 in The Tree of Life Web Project, http://tolweb.org/

edit this page
close box

This page is a Tree of Life Leaf Page.

Each ToL leaf page provides a synopsis of the characteristics of a group of organisms representing a leaf at the tip of the Tree of Life. The major distinction between a leaf and a branch of the Tree of Life is that a leaf cannot generally be further subdivided into subgroups representing distinct genetic lineages.

For a more detailed explanation of the different ToL page types, have a look at the Structure of the Tree of Life page.

close box

Heliconius sapho

Page Content

articles & notes



Explore Other Groups

random page

  go to the Tree of Life home page