Giant Homerus Jamaican Swallowtails (Papilio homerus): Largest Butterflies of the Americas

by DerdriuMarriner

Homerus swallowtails evoke Homer. Like their namesake, they have wonderful things to tell. But people and wasps may turn Jamaica's butterflies into ancient memories.


Giant Homerus Jamaican swallowtails are the largest native butterfly species in the Americas.
• They carry the common description Homerus swallowtails and the binomial designation Papilio homerus.
• Both names commemorate Homer, the ancient poet-historian of the Trojan War (1260 B.C.? – 1240 B.C.?).

Homer’s butterflies nevertheless do not live in Greece, the country of the language in which the Homerian epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey are written. But they really do occupy parts of Jamaica. They in fact number among such fauna and flora exclusively occurring on Jamaica as:
• Jamaican conies (Geocapromys brownii);
• Jamaican red bats (Lasiurus degelidus);
• Jamaican yellow snakes (Epicrates subflavus);
• Red-billed streamertail hummingbirds (Trochilus polytmus).

But population sustainability requires protection from:
• Agro-industrialists;
• Collectors;
• Wasps.


Species name of Papilio homerus honors Homer, blind ancient poet-historian of the Trojan War:

"Homer and his Guide": 1874 oil on canvas by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (November 30, 1825 – August 19, 1905)
Milwaukee Art Museum
Milwaukee Art Museum


The formal presentation of giant Homerus swallowtails to wildlife-loving amateurs and professionals outside Jamaica dates to 1793. It deals with the taxonomic decisions of Tønder-born Danish zoologist Johan Christian Fabricius (January 7, 1745 – March 3, 1808). It draws upon the scientist in question’s experience and expertise as:

  • Pupil in the Danish- and German-speaking harbor town of Altona’s gymnasium;
  • Student at the University of Copenhagen, 1762;
  • Student in Uppsala of Småland-born Swedish botanist, physician, proto-ecologist, taxonomist, and zoologist Carl Linnaeus (May 23, 1707 – January 10, 1778), 1762 - 1764;
  • Taxonomist of such joint-limbed, segment-bodied invertebrates as arachnids, crustaceans, and insects;
  • Writer of arthropod taxonomy-related research publications;
  • Zoologist at the Universities of Copenhagen, 1770-, and of Kiel, Germany, 1775-/1776-.


Johann Christian Fabricius (January 7, 1745 – March 3, 1808) gave first formal presentation of Papilio homerus in 1793:

engraving of 1805 portrait by Gerhard Ludvig Lahde (October 19, 1765 – November 29, 1833)
F.W. Hope, "The Autobiography of John Christian Fabricius" (1845), frontispiece
F.W. Hope, "The Autobiography of John Christian Fabricius" (1845), frontispiece


Johan’s taxonomy describes a lepidopteran (moth, moth butterfly, skipper butterfly, or true butterfly) of great beauty, grace, and size. Jamaica’s giant Homerus swallowtails display the hallmark insect characteristics of:

  • Compound eyes;
  • Exterior skeleton;
  • One pair of frontal antennae (leg-like, sensory appendages);
  • Three pairs of jointed legs;
  • Tripartite body divided recognizably from top to bottom into head, thorax, and abdomen.

They exhibit:

  • Blue- and red-spotted undersides of wings;
  • Dark abdomens, antennae, heads, legs, and thoraxes;
  • Pair of dark tails, with both claiming teardrop-shaped tips and each protruding from the middle edge of their respective hindwing;
  • Set of dark lower and upper wings;
  • Yellow-banded uppersides of wings.

Male giant Homerus swallowtails uniquely express abdomen-area, hair scales on both hindwings.


Papilio homerus:

illustration by Eugenius Johann Christoph Esper (June 2, 1742 – July 27, 1810)
E.J.C. Esper, Die ausländischen Schmetterlinge in Abbildungen nach der Natur (1830), Vol. II, Tab. XLV, Figure 1
E.J.C. Esper, Die ausländischen Schmetterlinge in Abbildungen nach der Natur (1830), Vol. II, Tab. XLV, Figure 1


Complete metamorphosis drives the life cycles and natural histories of Jamaica’s giant Homerus swallowtails. The term expresses the unique look which characterizes each of the four stages within the lepidopteran in question’s biologies:

  • Egg;
  • Larva;
  • Pupa;
  • Winged adult.

The eggs laid by Jamaica’s female giant Homerus swallowtails get smooth, spherical shapes sized at 0.079 inches (2 millimeters) each. They initially give pale green impressions, which experience pale yellow stages before darkening to brown just before hatching. They have to be deposited on in wet limestone forests and lower montane rainforests at altitudes of 498.69 – 1,998.03 feet (152 – 609 meters) above sea level. Deposition in degraded, disturbed habitats make them vulnerable to predation by parasitic wasps (Chrysonotomyia spp).


Papilio homerus specimen collected in 1887 from Fish River, Hanover Parish, northwestern Jamaica

Ulster Museum, Botanic Gardens, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Ulster Museum, Botanic Gardens, Belfast, Northern Ireland


It behooves Jamaica's female giant Homerus swallowtails to deposit their eggs on the leafy undersides of specific food and host plants. As the larval stage, caterpillars consume:

  • First the eggs from which they hatch;

  • Then water mahoe leaves (Hernandia catalpifolia, H. jamaicensis).

They expect humidity regularly hovering around 100%. They face life-threatening interactions with bacteria. They fight predators with stinkbombs released from the forked, retractable, terpene-emitting osmeterium located on the first three thoracic segments. They must survive 60-day pupal stages to emerge as 3-inch (7.62-centimeter) adults with:

  • Average wingspans of 4.92 – 7.88 inches (12.5 – 20 centimeters);

  • Daytime, high-canopy, slow-moving flights from February to the end of April and from September to the end of October.


Flower and leaves of Lantana camara, New World native plant which is nectared by Papilio homerus.

Lisbon, west central Portugal
Lisbon, west central Portugal


The primary forest's vegetative food and shelter options accommodate adult giant Homerus swallowtail needs for floral food sources and shelter options. But adults adapt to cultivated, disturbed forest edges and secondary-growth environments wherever nectar is obtainable from:

  • Orange sage (Lantana camara);

  • Shoe black (Hibiscus rosasinensis);

  • Water mahoe.

Historical records and local anecdotes indeed associate giant Homerus swallowtails with seven of Jamaica's 13 parishes. But agro-industrial development, climate change, global warming, and socio-economic imperatives cause overlaps between bio-geographical requirements and pertinent resources to occur only in the parishes of:

  • Portland and St. Thomas, where eastern Jamaica's Blue and John Crow Mountains meet;

  • Trelawney, among western Jamaica's cave- and limestone-riddled karst landscapes and cockfighting pit-reminiscent sinkholes of Cockpit Country.


Papilio homerus finds refuge in northwestern Jamaica's Cockpit Country, a wilderness of caves, cliffs, and rainforests.

Cockpit Country
Cockpit Country


Conservationists arrive at endangered-status conclusions when guesstimating the current and future sustainability of Jamaica's giant Homerus swallowtail populations. They consider as particularly detrimental to the butterfly's survival negative impacts from:

  • Agro-industrialists;

  • Collectors;

  • Miners.

Governmental proscriptions on logging do not moderate the conversion of thousands of acres / hectares of rainforest habitats to coffee plantations. They do not regulate the impacts of bauxite mining on air, forest, soil, and water quality. They do not stop the reduction in wild populations by hunters gathering rare and unusual specimens for international traders and private collectors. As a result, Jamaica's economy gets reconfigured in world market-friendly ways which generate jobs and revenue but fragment forests into wildlife-unfriendly wildland – urban interfaces.


Papilio homerus

Colecciones científicas de MICROFAUNA-Pedro Velasco
Colecciones científicas de MICROFAUNA-Pedro Velasco



Like their namesake, Jamaica's giant Homerus swallowtails harbor stories of consequential deeds, places, and times. Their back-stories likewise inject into the course of human history the prescriptions and proscriptions of what does and does not work in interactions between people and their environment. It still is possible to record and transmit the ecological information contained within the bio-geographical needs of giant Homerus swallowtails, as:

  • Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park's icon;

  • Jamaica's obligate, pollen-dispersing, vegetation-controlling flagship and keystone species.

The Universities of Florida and the West Indies look to solid track records in species conservation through:

  • Captive breeding;

  • Habitat protection;

  • Species cross-breeding.

Scientific research just needs the finance-empowering, results-oriented support of:

  • Business;

  • Government;

  • Wildlife-loving activists.


Habitat protection is a major concern in Cockpit Country, where bauxite mining attracts attention from commercial interests.

Cockpit County in 1984: "Central Jamaica, Off main road running South from Discovery Bay. Somewhere in Cockpit Country."
Cockpit County in 1984: "Central Jamaica, Off main road running South from Discovery Bay. Somewhere in Cockpit Country."



My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.


Remoteness of Jamaica's Cockpit Country, with conical hills and ridges separated by steep-sided hollows, preserves rich cultural heritage of rural communities as well as offers refuge for species such as Papilio homerus.

northwestern Jamaica's Cockpit Country
northwestern Jamaica's Cockpit Country

Homerus Swallowtail ~ Video taken in Jamaican Cockpit country

Uploaded to YouTube on July 14, 2011 by rigdoncurrie ~ URL:

Sources Consulted


Bisby, F.A.; Roskov, Y.R.; Orrell, T.M.; Nicolson, D.; Paglinawan, L.E.; Bailly, N.; Kirk, P.M.; Bourgoin, T.; Baillargeon, G.; Ouvrard, D. (red.). 2011. "Papilio homerus Fabricius, 1793." Species 2000 & ITIS Catalogue of Life: 2011 Annual Checklist. Reading, U.K.: Species 2000. Retrieved October 15, 2014.

  • Available at:

"Conservation of Homerus -- Largest Swallowtail of the Americas." Florida Museum of Natural History: Research > Conservation. Retrieved October 15, 2014.

  • Available at:

Emmel, T.C.; and Garraway, E. 1990. "Ecology and Conservation Biology of the Homerus Swallowtail in Jamaica (Lepidoptera: Papilionidae)." Tropical Lepidoptera 1(2):63-76.

Esper, Eugenius Johann Christoph. 1830. Die ausländischen Schmetterlinge in Abbildungen nach der Natur mit Beschreibungen. Vol. II: Plates. Erlangen: im Verlage der Expedition des Esper'schen Schmetterlings- und des Schreber'schen Säugthierwerkes.

  • Available via Biodiversity Heritage Library at:
  • Available via Internet Archive at:

Garraway, Eric; and Bailey, Audette. Butterflies of Jamaica. Macmillan: Caribbean Pocket Natural History Series.

Garraway, E.; Bailey, A.J.A.; Freeman, B.E.; Parnell, J.R.; and Emmel, T.C. 2008. "Population Studies and Conservation of Jamaica’s Endangered Swallowtail Butterfly Papilio (Pterourus) homerus.Journal of Insect Conservation 12(3-4):383-397.

"The Giant Swallowtail Butterfly." Jamaica Gleaner. Kingston, Jamaica: July 27, 2006. Retrieved October 15, 2014.

  • Available at:

Gimenez Dixon, M. 1996. "Papilio homerus." In: IUCN 2008. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Retrieved October 15, 2014.

  • Available at:

Glenn, C.R. 2006. "Jamaican Giant Swallowtail Butterfly." Earth's Endangered Creatures (Online). Retrieved October 15, 2014.

  • Available at:

"Homerus Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio homerus)." U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Species Profile. Retrieved October 15, 2014.

  • Available at

Hope, F. W. 1845. "The Auto-Biography of John Christian Fabricius. Translated from the Danish." Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, Vol. 4: i–xvi.

  • Available via Wiley Online Library at:

"Jamaica's Giant Swallowtail Buttefly (Papilio homerus)." Jamaica Observer: News. Kingston, Jamaica: March 11, 2007. Retrieved October 15, 2014.

  • Available at:

Lehnert, M.S. 2008. "The Population Biology and Ecology of the Homerus Swallowtail, Papilio (Pterourus) homerus, in the Cockpit Country, Jamaica." Journal of Insect Conservation 12(2):179-188. 

"Papilio homerus Fabricius, 1793." uBio: Universal Biological Indexer and Organizer NamebankID 1079945. Woods Hole, MA: Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Library. Retrieved October 15, 2014.

  • Available at:

"Papilio homerus: Homerus Swallowtail." Encyclopedia of Life. Retrieved October 15, 2014.

  • Available at:

"Papilio homerus (Homerus Swallowtail)." ZipcodeZoo: Species Identifier 8726. Retrieved October 15, 2014.

  • Available at:

"Papilionidae Seen Near WRC." Windsor Research Centre. Retrieved October 15, 2014.

  • Available at:

Seitz, Adalbert. 1924. The Macrolepidoptera of the world: A systematic description of the hitherto known Macrolepidoptera. Vol. 5: The American Rhopalocera. With 203 plates. Stuttgart: Alfred Kernen.

  • Available via Internet Archive at:

Thunderr. "Endangered Species -- Jamaican Giant Swallowtail Butterfly -- Pterourus Homerus." Care2Com, Inc.: Popular Stories. Retrieved October 15, 2014.

  • Available at:

Turner, T.W. 1991. "Papilio homerus (Papilionidae) in Jamaica, West Indies: Field Observations and Description of Immature Stages." Journal of Lepidopterists' Society 45(4):259-271.

  • Available via Biodiversity Library at:

University of Florida. 15 August 2007. "Largest Butterfly in Western Hemisphere Needs Help to Avoid Extinction." Science Daily, LLC: Featured Research from Universities, Journals, and Other Organizations. Retrieved October 15, 2014.

  • Available at:

Warren, A.D.; Davis, K.J.; Grishin, N.V.; Pelham, J.P.; Stangeland, E.M. 2012. "Papilio homerus Fabricius, 1793 (Homerus Swallowtail)." Interactive Listing of American Butterflies. Butterflies of America Foundation. Retrieved October 15, 2014.

  • Available at:

Wood, Delroy.  10 February 2012. "The Jamaican Giant Swallowtail Butterfly." The Juice Man: Facts and Figures. Retrieved October 15, 2014.

  • Available at:


Papilio homerus resides in Blue & John Crow Mountains National Park, where over 800 endemic Jamaican plants thrive ~

Blue Mountains: northward view of St. Mary Parish from St. Andrew Parish
interior of eastern Jamaica
interior of eastern Jamaica
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

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Butterflies of Jamaica (Macmillan Caribbean Natural History) by Eric Garraway and Audette Bailey

"Butterflies of Jamaica" is a highly illustrated, comprehensive field guide that covers the most common varieties as well as the less well-known species on the island.
Jamaica-themed books

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DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 05/08/2015, DerdriuMarriner
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


DerdriuMarriner on 10/16/2014

burntchestnut, Your avatar attests to your love of butterflies! The butterfly tee from AllPosters is one of my favorites. Semi-arid plants can be so brilliant and textured, which is why I appreciate lantana. Texas landscapes seem to show an appreciation of flowers. I appreciate that Lady Bird Johnson devoted so much in energy, love, resources, and time to the honoring of wildflowers.

AngelaJohnson on 10/16/2014

I love butterflies and take many photographs. I love the butterfly tee shirt. You showed a photo of a lantana plant; we have those in south Texas, a semi-arid area.

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