Common Postman (Heliconius melpomene)

Scientific Classification

Domain: Eukaryota

Kingdom: Animalia

Subkingdom: Metazoa

Phylum: Arthropoda

Class: Insecta

Order: Lepidoptera

Suborder: Rhopalocera

Family: Nymphalidae

Genus: Heliconius

Species: Heliconius melpomene

Common names: Common Postman, Piano Key Butterfly, Postman


There are several subspecies of Heliconius melpomene displaying a wide variety of wing colours and patterns as well as differing wing shapes. These are further extended by the species' readiness to breed with other related heliconius, producing hybrids with yet more variation.

Viewed from above (dorsal side) the wings are most often black with bright red, reddish orange, yellow or white stripes along the forewings. Hindwings may be patterned at the rear which resembles a piano keyboard, hence one of its common names, Piano Key Butterfly.

Viewed from below (ventral side) there are commonly three red dots where the wing meets the thorax. Body colour is black.

Adult wingspan from tip to tip is 35mm to 39mm.

Pupae (chrysalides) are mid to dark brown with gold spots. Black spines protrude from the ventral side.

Larvae (caterpillars) are white or cream with black spots. Long black spines protrude from the body. They have two horn shaped appendages at the front end (anterior). The head is light orange and the underside pale yellow. Fully fed larvae are around 15mm long.

Eggs are dull yellow and measure approximately 1.5mm x 1mm.

Habitat and Distribution

Pine forests, hillsides, mountains and along river banks and streams found in tropical Central and Southern America and Mexico. Lower densities are found in the southernmost parts of the USA. A favoured habitat is on south facing slopes of the Andes mountain range.

Behaviour and Genetics

Heliconius melpomene's colours advertise to predators that they are poisonous and have a bad taste. They also release a strong odour, detectable even by humans, as a warning.

They return to large roosts after the day's feeding. It is believed they do this because an individual is less likely to be predated if it is in a large group.

Males seem