Steven Cheshire's British Butterflies
British Butterflies: Species: Species Account - The Small Tortoiseshell:
Small Tortoiseshell
Aglais urticae (Linnaeus, 1758)

Small Tortoiseshell egg.
  Small Tortoiseshell caterpillar.
  Small Tortoiseshell chrysalis
Small Tortoiseshell
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Insecta: Lepidoptera : Family Nymphalidae: Subfamily Nymphalinae : Genus Aglais: Species urticae:
Regarded as one of our most common butterflies the bright orange wings with black spots of the Small Tortoiseshell makes this one of our most easily recognised butterflies. It is fast flying in bright sunshine but can be easily approached when feeding.

The Small Tortoiseshell is a strong flyer and easily colonises suitable habitat. It also hibernates during the winter and is usually one of the first butterflies to be seen in the spring along with other regular hibernators,
Red Admiral, Peacock, Comma and Brimstone.

Its larvae feed on Common Stinging Nettle usually in large numbers with young larvae living close together sheltered within a protective silken web. As the larvae reach the final stages of development, they become more independent.

Recent years have seen a rapid decline in numbers of Small Tortoiseshell numbers across Britain. The primary reason for this decline is thought to be due to the expanding range of a tachinid parasitoid fly called Sturmia bella which was first recorded in Britain in 1999.

The adult fly (Sturmia bella) lays its eggs on the surface of Common Nettle leaves. These are ingested by the young caterpillars of the Small Tortoiseshell. The Sturmia bella larvae develop within the caterpillar and emerge just after the caterpillar pupates, killing the pupae in the process. The Sturmia bella larvae then pupate themselves. The pupae are brown, smooth with a shiny appearance.

Research is currently being conducted by Dr Owen Lewis at the Dept of Zoology University of Oxford in order to acertain if Sturmia bella is the cause of the reduced abundance of the Small Tortoiseshell in the UK. For more information about Sturmia bella, visit the Tachinid Recording Scheme web site.

It should be noted that there are several other species of parasitoid fly whose larvae feed on the caterpillars of the Small Tortoiseshell. These include the ichneumonid Phobocampe confusa whose pupa are slivey-grey and slightly hairy.
The Small Tortoiseshell can be found in a wide variety of habitats and regularly occurs in gardens feeding on Buddleia. It can also be found on disused railways and railway embankments rough ground and anywhere where the larval foodplant Common Nettle is present.
The Small Tortoiseshell can be seen across the whole of Britain although it is generally absent in north and north-western Scotland. However, since it is a powerful flyer, it is possible for the Small Tortoiseshell to occur anywhere in the UK.
Where to see the Small Tortoiseshell in the British Isles

Anywhere where the larval foodplant occurs.

Other notes
Lifecycle chart
Flight chart
The lifecycle and flight charts should be regarded as approximate guides to the Small Tortoiseshell in Britain. Specific lifecycle states, adult emergence and peak flight times vary from year to year due to variations in weather conditions.
IUCN category status 2010 5   IUCN category status 2007 34
--awaiting data-- --awaiting data--

5Fox, R., Warren, M., Brereton, T. M., Roy, D. B. & Robinson, A.
(2010) A new Red List of British Butterflies. Insect Conservation and Diversity.
Least Concern Least Concern

3Fox, R., Warren, M & Brereton, T.
(2007) New Red List of British Butterflies. Butterfly Conservation, Wareham.

4More information about IUCN categories.
UK status
Larval foodplants
Common Nettle (Urtica dioica).
Butterflies of Britain ID Chart
Your personal guide to British Butterflies. This 8-panel laminated chart is designed for speedy butterfly identification in the field. Ideal for anyone interested in identifying butterflies, perfect for children and adults and ideal for outdoor use, laminated, shower-proof and robust. Get your copy today.
Butterflies of Britain (Laminated ID Chart).
Online store
Visit our online store for many more butterfly related books and gifts.
Population trends 1
UK Population trend 1995-2004 down by -34%
UK Population trend 1976-2004 down by -15%

1Fox, R., Asher. J., Brereton. T., Roy, D & Warren, M. (2006) The State of Butterflies in Britain & Ireland, Pices, Oxford.
UK BAP status 2
UK BAP status not listed (link)

2For information about the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, visit the JNCC web site

National Biodiversity Network Gateway
National Biodiversity Network Gateway Distribution Map

Areas in and indicate a contraction in distribution of the Small Tortoiseshell except in Ireland where data is only available up until 1999.

* Records shown in outside the natural distribution may be the result of illegal or accidental releases by breeders or, depending upon the species, migrant individuals from mainland Europe.

Key to map*
= 2000 to 2010 inclusive (current distribution)
= records from 1950 to 1999 inclusive
= records from 1900 to 1949 inclusive
Records prior to 1st January 1900 are not shown.

The NBN Gateway records are shown on the map right. (See terms and conditions).

More data is available on the Small Tortoiseshell on the NBN Gateway web site.
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For full details of books and reports mentioned on this web site, view the references page.

Find out more online*
Small Tortoiseshell can be found on Peter Eeles excellent UK Butterflies web site.
Small Tortoiseshell can be found on Matt Rowlings excellent European Butterflies web site.

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Photographs of the Small Tortoiseshell
Image ID BB1953 - Small Tortoiseshell - © Steven Cheshire
Small Tortoiseshell (imago)
BB1953 ©
Image ID BB1952 - Small Tortoiseshell - © Steven Cheshire
Small Tortoiseshell (imago)
BB1952 ©
Image ID BB1951 - Small Tortoiseshell - © Steven Cheshire
Small Tortoiseshell (imago)
BB1951 ©
Image ID BB1950 - Small Tortoiseshell - © Steven Cheshire
Small Tortoiseshell (imago)
BB1950 ©
Image ID BB1758 - Small Tortoiseshell - © Steven Cheshire
Small Tortoiseshell (imago)
BB1758 ©
Image ID BB1397 - Small Tortoiseshell - © Steven Cheshire
Small Tortoiseshell female (imago)
BB1397 ©
Image ID BB1396 - Small Tortoiseshell - © Steven Cheshire
Small Tortoiseshell female (imago)
BB1396 ©
Image ID BB1294 - Small Tortoiseshell - © Steven Cheshire
Small Tortoiseshell male (imago)
BB1294 ©
Image ID BB1293 - Small Tortoiseshell - © Steven Cheshire
Small Tortoiseshell male and female (imago)
BB1293 ©
Image ID BB1166 - Small Tortoiseshell - © Steven Cheshire
Small Tortoiseshell unknown (imago)
BB1166 ©
There are 22 photographs of the Small Tortoiseshell in our stock photo library.
View more photographs of the Small Tortoiseshell as a thumbnail gallery or as a slideshow.
Aberrations and forms
There are 23 named aberrant forms of the Small Tortoiseshell currently listed. Find out more about aberrants here.

ab. albapicata - Cabeau 1925
ab. angustibalteata - Raynor 1909
ab. brunneoviolacea - Raynor 1909
ab. caerulapicata - Raynor 1906
ab. conjuncta - Neuberg 1905
ab. cuneatiguttata - Raynor 1909
ab. dannenbergi - Neuberg 1905
ab. ichnusioides - de Selys 1837
ab. leodiensis - Cabeau 1927
ab. luteomarginata - Lambillion 1906
ab. nigra - Tutt 1896
ab. nigrita - Fickert 1897
ab. osborni - Donckier 1881
ab. pallida - Mosley 1896
ab. pseudichnusa - Reuss 1939
ab. semialba - Frohawk 1938
ab. semiichnusoides - Pronin 1928
ab. seminigra - Frohawk 1938
ab. sordida - Fritsch 1913
ab. subtusbrunnescens - Groenendijk 1966
ab. subtus-ornata - Reuss 1910
ab. subtuspuncta - Reuss 1909
ab. urticoides - Fischer de Waldheim 1851