Red Admiral and Painted Lady Research Site

ISU Entomology / Red Admiral and Painted Lady Research Site / An Ethogram for the Red Admiral

An Ethogram for the Red Admiral

Red Admiral perching on a south-facing wall. Photo by Wendy and Fred Martin. Eastville, Virginia, January 10, 2003. The large chunks symmetrically missing from both of this butterfly's hind wings suggest that it had been attacked by a predatory bird.

An ethogram is a list and description of an animal's discrete patterns of behavior, which are called acts. Because the acts of many animals are stereotypical and frequently repeated, recording animal behavior as a series of acts is much easier than writing a full running description of what an animal is doing throughout the whole time you observe it. Once you are familiar with an animal's repertoire of acts, it is relatively easy to record its behavior patterns as a series of coded entries in a field notebook, tape recorder, or automated event logger.



Perhaps one of the easier ways to record events is to use an accurately set digital watch with a readout precise to the nearest second. With this, you can record the starting and ending times of acts such as patrols and interactions. Such data will also show the precise time of day when each act occurred, and by subtraction, the duration of each act. Periods spent resting can also be calculated by subtracting the time when the butterfly ended its previous flight from the time when it flew up to begin its next one.

Knowing how to observe and record Red Admirals' behavioral acts is the first step toward being able to study in detail such questions as which acts tend to follow others in a sequence, the amount and type of activity and energy expenditure during the territorial period, the effects of weather conditions on behavior, and factors affecting the outcome and duration of territorial contests.


The territorial behavior of Red Admirals consists of a number of discrete behavioral acts, including the following:

Arrival (Arr)
Occurs when a butterfly enters the territory for the first time. It flies in from elsewhere and lands on the ground or other perch site within the territory.

Rest (R)
When resting, the butterfly perches on the ground, a wall or cliff face, a tree trunk or shrub, or other surface.

Rest, wings closed (Closed)
The butterfly rests with its wings closed and held vertically above its body.

Rest, wings open (Open)
The butterfly rests with its wings open horizontally or drooping slightly below the plane of its body.

Fan (F)
The butterfly opens and closes its wings repeatedly while resting.

Patrol (P)
During a patrol, the butterfly flies up from its perch to a height of two to six feet above the ground. It then circles or loops back and forth several times within the boundaries of its territory before returning to its perch.

Rise (Up)
The butterfly flies upward from a resting position.

Chase (C)
When two butterflies are chasing during an interaction, the one in the rear position Chases.

Lead (L)
When two butterflies are chasing in an interaction, the one in the forward position Leads.

Hover (H)
When hovering together, two butterflies fly in tight formation around each other while slowly rising together perhaps six to 12 inches. Sometimes the two butterflies beat their wings together. Each butterfly appears to be trying to attain a position above and behind the other one.

Hovering interaction (Ih)
A hovering interaction is one in which the occupant intercepts the intruder and the two butterflies then hover together for several seconds before separating.

Horizontal chase (Ho)
One butterfly chases another along a horizontal path, typically flying a few inches to several feet behind the other one.

Horizontal interaction (Iho)
During a horizontal interaction, the occupant first intercepts the intruder as previously mentioned. The two butterflies may Hover together, and then chase horizontally before separating.

Spiral or helical chase (Sp)
As one butterfly closely chases the other, both rise and circle together along an ascending helical path that may be 10-20 feet in diameter. Helical chases vary in the number of circuits, the rate of ascent, the final altitude, and in direction (either clockwise or counterclockwise). Helically chasing butterflies often rise to the treetops (50-60 feet) before leveling off and separating.

Spiral or helical interaction (Isp)
A spiral interaction is one in which the contestants go through the full sequence of approaching, hovering, and a helical chase before separating.

Near-interaction (NI)
Occurs when two butterflies are flying toward each other as if to interact, but then break off the approach and fly off separately.

Forward Dart (FD)
Occurs between two butterflies that are chasing. The butterfly that is following or chasing the other one accelerates toward the other one, nearly touches the other, than drops back to its previous following distance.

Break (Br)
A break occurs as the two butterflies separate in mid-air at the end of the contest phase of an interaction.

Return (RT)
A return occurs when the butterfly re-enters the territory (typically at a height of 4-6 feet) after the end of an interaction.

Descending return (Drop)
A descending return or drop occurs after two butterflies break at the end of a spiral interaction. The returning butterfly or butterflies descend steeply toward the ground and re-enter the territory.

Relight (RL)
A relight occurs when the butterfly lands on the ground or other perch location after completing a patrol or an interaction.

Decamp or Depart
Occurs when an occupant leaves his territory at the end of the day. The butterfly rises from the ground at a steep angle at a relatively constant speed, then flies toward the branches of nearby trees to seek a roost site.

Red Admiral

Painted Lady

American Lady

West Coast Lady