Butterflies and Moths


Summary 3

Lepidoptera (/ˌlɛpɨˈdɒptərə/ lep-i-DOP-tər-ə) is a large order of insects that includes moths and butterflies (both called lepidopterans). It is one of the most widespread and widely recognizable insect orders in the world, encompassing moths and the three superfamilies of butterflies, skipper butterflies, and moth-butterflies. The term was coined by Linnaeus in 1735 and is derived from Ancient Greek λεπίδος (scale) and πτερόν (wing). Comprising an estimated 174,250 species, in 126 families and 46 superfamilies, the Lepidoptera...

Communication and perception 4

Butterflies use sight more, since they are active in the daylight. Some species have special courtship flights they use to make sure their mate is the right species, and healthy.

Moths use chemical senses more to find each other in the dark. Some male moths can smell a single female from kilometers away.

Conservation status 5

Some species are endangered, usually because the habitat they need or the food plant they eat is endangered.

Development 6

Moths and butterflies have complete metamorphosis. Adult females lay eggs, and the young that emerge from these eggs are worm-like larvae called caterpillars. The caterpillars eat and grow fast, and eventually they stop feeding and transform into a pupa, a resting stage that cannot move or feed. Often the caterpillar makes a cocoon to protect it before it transforms. Pupae that do not make a cocoon are called chrysalids. Inside the pupal case the moth or butterfly completes its transformation and emerges as a winged adult.

Development - Life Cycle: metamorphosis

Economic importance for humans: negative 7

Some species of moths are major agricultural pests. Their caterpillars eat crop plants. Millions and millions of dollars are spent every year trying to protect our crops from these pests. Some get in stored food like grain, or eat wool and fur. A few caterpillars have poisonous hairs or spines that can cause a painful rash if you touch them.

Negative Impacts: crop pest; household pest

Economic importance for humans: positive 8

Silk comes from the cocoons of a moth, and many people enjoy the beauty of butterflies and moths.

Ecosystem roles 9

Adults are sometimes valuable pollinators. Caterpillars can be major herbivores, and are food for lots of other animals.

Ecosystem Impact: pollinates

Mutualist Species:

  • Ants (some caterpillars give honeydew like aphids)

Food habits 10

Most moths and nearly all butterfly caterpillars eat the leaves and flowers of plants. Some moth caterpillars eat fruit, or seeds, and a few eat animal foods like beeswax or fur. A very few species of caterpillars are carnivores, eating Aphididae or other soft-bodied Insecta.

Adults mostly drink nectar or sap. They sometimes feed on mud to get minerals, or on animal dung to get protein that they need.

Functional adaptation 11

Abrupt flight patterns help evade predators: moths

Moths detect bat calls and avoid predation using sudden drops and weaving flight patterns. 

  "Many species of moth can hear bats coming by listening in to their ultrasonic echolocation calls. They can therefore escape before being caught. Once the bat is within approximately 20 feet (6m), moths take abrupt evasive action, either by folding up their wings and dropping down out of the bat's flight path, or by embarking on a random, weaving flight that the bat cannot follow." (Shuker 2001:23)

Watch Video
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.

Functional adaptation 12

Mating flights associated with thunderstorms: moths

Some moths in New Zealand detect positive ion accumulation in the atmosphere preceding thunderstorms. 

  "In New Zealand, the nuptial flights of certain moths are so influenced by the positive ion accumulation in the atmosphere that precedes thunderstorms that they can be used as an accurate guide to future weather conditions." (Shuker 2001:65)

  Learn more about this functional adaptation.

Functional adaptation 13

Cocoon lining prevents ice crystals: moths

Oral secretions in the cocoons of many moths prevent formation of ice crystals because they form a fine, dry, web-like lining. 

  "An oral secretion lining (a spider-like thread) is essential in the cocoons of many moths overwintering in cold conditions: it prevents moisture from intruding and prevents the formations of ice crystals, which would be lethal for the pupa…The cocoon may look rough and chunk-like but the interior surface is smoothly covered by web. This is most important for the cold-hardiness of the pupa. It overwinters in a supercooled state, and if a single ice crystal penetrates the skin, the animal freezes momentarily and dies. The fine and dry web prevents the formation of dangerous ice crystals." (Pallasmaa 1995:37, 95)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.

Functional adaptation 14

Mouthpart functions change: butterfly

The mouthparts of a caterpillar and its butterfly serve drastically different functions with minimal energy loss because they arise from the same basic morphological pattern. 

  "A caterpillar straddles the rim of a leaf and its jaws, like tiny secateurs, clip away neat semicircular holes and erode the leaf at a prodigious speed. A couple of months later, a butterfly pauses briefly on a flower and uncurls a long 'tongue' or proboscis with which it probes the heart of the bloom to suck up nectar. The butterfly was once the caterpillar, but since its metamorphosis it has adopted a completely different diet, and consequently its mouthparts have had to change shape dramatically. The mouthparts of both butterfly and caterpillar, however, are formed from the same basic pattern, a pattern shared by all insects. Just as birds' beaks are adapted to their eating habits, so too are insect mouthparts." (Foy and Oxford Scientific Films 1982:159)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.

Functional adaptation 15

Wing scales help camouflage from sonar: moth

The scales on moth wings help camouflage them from predatory bats because their uneven shape prevents the bats' sonar from detecting them clearly. 

  "The moth's first defense again comes from those fuzzy scales it has all over its body. To us they just seem ungainly, a mistake. But because of their uneven shape, they give the bat only a fuzzy outline on its sonar scope." (Bodanis 1992:169)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.

Functional adaptation 16

Chemical plug prevents mating: butterfly

The mating apparatus of male butterflies prevents other males from mating with a female by producing a chemical plug. 

  "The mating apparatus of the male honeybee actually explodes and detaches, plugging the newly mated queen and preventing other males from mating with her. A number of insects, including butterflies, have chemical mating plugs which serve the same purpose and may even provide nutrients that the female absorbs and uses for egg production." (Forsyth 1992:32)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.

Functional adaptation 17

Wing scales provide lift: butterflies

The wings of butterflies gain lift because their scales point away from the leading edge of the wing, helping air flow smoothly over the wing. 

  "The scales all point away from the leading edge of the wing, to help the air flow smoothly over the wings when the insect is in flight. (It has been calculated that scales provide 15 per cent more 'lift' to the butterfly and also improve its gliding performance." (Foy and Oxford Scientific Films 1982:99)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.

Functional adaptation 18

Leaf tents hide caterpillars: Bornean moths

Bornean moths protect themselves from birds by creating leaf tents. 

  "In the rain forests of Borneo, one small moth caterpillar constructs a most ingenious device that enables it to feed out of the sight of hungry birds. It starts work on the margin of a leaf and chews a cut inwards as though it were about to remove a semicircular segment. But when it reaches the farthest extent of the curve and seems about to arch back towards the margin, it stops and returns to the edge of the leaf. It walks along it and makes another cut as if to complete the semicircle from the other direction. But just before it joins the first cut, it stops. The segment is now attached only by a small hinge. The caterpillar next spins silken threads across the hinge between the segment and the rest of the leaf. As the silk dries, it contracts. This first hoists the segment into the air and then brings it down on top of the caterpillar. Now, working from beneath, the caterpillar makes a short slit at right angles to the cut edge of the segment. It converts the segment into a tiny dome. The whole process takes a couple of hours. As a result of all this ingenious labour, the caterpillar can nibble away at the leaf surface beneath, safe from the eyes and beaks of hungry birds." (Attenborough 1995:56-58)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.

Functional adaptation 19

Scent trails lead to food: European moths

Caterpillars of the European moth find new food sources via scent trails exuded from other caterpillars. 

  "A European moth that is a serious pest in orchards, lays its eggs in spirals glued together around the twigs of fruit trees. When they hatch, the young caterpillars, while sustaining themselves by eating the leaves immediately around them, spin a large silken shroud around the branch so big that it can accommodate them all. They spend the day within it, concealed from the sight of hungry predatory birds. But when night comes they set out in long columns to demolish more leaves.

"After they have eaten everything in their immediate neighbourhood, a single scout sets out to prospect for more. As it explores new parts of the tree, it lays down behind it a trail of scent that exudes from glands on its rear end. This enables it to find its way back to shelter before dawn. The next night, its companions inspect the trail. If it has a single track, as might happen if the caterpillar was taken in the night by some hunter, they will ignore it. But if there is a double track, indicating that the scout returned and if, furthermore, its smell indicates that the scout had a good meal, then the whole colony of several hundred will set off in procession to strip the leaves from yet another part of the fruit tree." (Attenborough 1995:58)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.

Functional adaptation 20

Feet sensitive to sweetness: butterfly

The feet of butterflies taste sweetness using extremely sensitive taste hairs. 

  "No matter where they are on an insect's body, taste sensors normally take the form of hairlike structures called taste hairs. Each one usually has five sensory nerve cells (neurons) at its base, four of which are concerned with taste. Of these, one always responds to sugar, a second to water, and the other two to various salts…Butterflies also have feet that can sense sweetness. When they have been starved, they can detect sugar diluted in water down to concentrations as low as 0.003 percent using their feet. This is a sensitivity 200 times greater than that of the human tongue." (Shuker 2001:33)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.

Functional adaptation 21

Proboscis forms a flexible, sealed cylinder: butterfly

The two-part proboscis of a butterfly unfurls to form a flexible feeding tube via two half-cylinders that curl over and interlock. 

  "The butterfly's proboscis, for example, is formed from the two soft 'lips' on the maxillae, which have become enormously elongated. When in use the two parts, semicircular in section, curl over and interlock to form a stiff but flexible cylindrical tube…" (Foy and Oxford Scientific Films 1982:163)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.

Functional adaptation 22

Conserving energy: moths

Some male moths have no mouthparts in order to conserve energy because their exclusive concern is mating. 

  "By complete contrast, some insects have no mouthparts at all. The short life of an adult male moth, for example, may be concerned exclusively with finding a mate and reproducing; and as feeding would be a waste of precious time it dispenses with mouthparts completely, and never feeds." (Foy and Oxford Scientific Films 1982:160)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.

Functional adaptation 23

Wings allow escape from spider webs: butterflies

The wings of butterflies and moths help them escape spider webs and other predators because they have scales that easily detach. 

  "Because butterflies and moths are always at risk of flying into spiderwebs, their wings are covered with detachable scales. When these insects are caught in a web or held in the grasp of a predator, the scales pull away freely and thus enable the moth or butterfly to slip away." (Forsyth 1992:12)

Thomas Eisner writes about testing how spider webs hold prey by dropping various insects onto the webs. "Most did not have a chance. It was the moths that seemed most consistently able to escape. They fluttered vigorously the moment we put them into an orb, but as a rule they were detained only momentarily. Some bounced off the web without sticking at all. Others, which did not change direction upon impact, slid momentarily over the web's surface, only to flutter free when they reached the edge. They all left impact marks on the webs where scales became detached to the viscid strands. Moth scars we came to call such telltale sites, and soon learned that they were common." (Eisner 2003:218-220) [In the photographs of p. 219 of this book, he shows wing scales of a moth and empty sockets left after the scales detached.]
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.

Geographic range 24

Moths and Butterflies are found all around the world. Some species live only in a small area, but many are found all across a continent. There are more than 12,000 species of moths and butterflies known just in the U.S., and probably more than 2,000 species in Michigan. The butterflies are well known, there are 146 species in Michigan, but the moths are not as well-studied. There are many small species that are still unknown to science.

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Introduced , Native ); palearctic (Introduced , Native ); oriental (Native ); ethiopian (Native ); neotropical (Native ); australian (Native ); oceanic islands (Introduced , Native )

Habitat 25

Moths and butterflies usually stay close to the food plants used by their young. However, there are so many kinds of moths, and they eat so many kinds of plants and plant parts, that different species can be found in almost all land habitats. Moth and butterfly caterpillars are usually found on or near their food. The adults are usually nearby, except for a few species that migrate to avoid harsh climates.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; polar ; terrestrial

Terrestrial Biomes: tundra ; taiga ; desert or dune ; chaparral ; forest ; rainforest ; scrub forest ; mountains

Wetlands: marsh ; swamp ; bog

Introduction 26

Most larvae are phytophagous; some eat other insects, a few are ectoparastoids. Most are terrestrial.

Known predators 27

Lepidoptera (lepidoptera larvae) is prey of:
Hylocichla mustelina
Geothlypis trichas
Picoides pubescens
Vireo olivaceus
Melanerpes erythrocephalus
Oreoscoptes montanus
Turdus migratorius
Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus
Mimus polyglottos
Cardinalis cardinalis
Geococcyx velox
Saurothera vieilloti
Otus nudipes
Herpestes auropunctatus
Eleutherodactylus coqui
Eleutherodactylus richmondi
Eleutherodactylus portoricensis
Eleutherodactylus wightmanae
Eleutherodactylus eneidae
Melanerpes portoricensis
Todus mexicanus
Mimocichla plumbea
Margarops fuscatus
Anolis cuvieri
Anolis evermanni
Anolis stratulus
Anolis gundlachi
Alsophis portoricensis
Leptodactylus albilabris
Myiarchus antillarum
Vireo latimeri
Nesospingus speculiferus
Icterus dominicensis
Vireo altiloquus
Seiurus aurocapillus
Sphaerodactylus klauberi
Diploglossus pleei
Mniotilta varia
Parula americana
Dendroica caerulescens
Dendroica discolor
Setophaga ruticilla
Coereba flaveola
Loxigilla portoricensis
Gonatista grisea
Pteronotus parnelli
Tyrannus dominicensis
Dendroica petechia
Anolis gingivinus
Anolis pogus

Based on studies in:
New Zealand (Grassland)
Russia (Agricultural)
USA: Illinois (Forest)
Puerto Rico, El Verde (Rainforest)
USA: New Jersey (Agricultural)
USA: Arizona, Sonora Desert (Desert or dune)

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.

Known prey organisms 28

Lepidoptera (lepidoptera larvae) preys on:
Schismus barbatus
seeds of other plants
live leaves
nectar and floral

Based on studies in:
New Zealand (Grassland)
USA: Illinois (Forest)
USA: Arizona, Sonora Desert (Desert or dune)
Puerto Rico, El Verde (Rainforest)
Russia (Agricultural)
Tibet (Montane)
USA: New Jersey (Agricultural)

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.

Lepi map 29

LepiMAP is the African butterfly and moth mapping project. LepiMAP is a joint project of the Animal Demography Unit and Lepidopterists' Society of Africa.

Learn more about this citizen science project on SciStarter.org.

Lifespan/longevity 30

Most species live only one year. A few live to two or three years, and some only live for a few months. Most species spend the winter as eggs or pupae, a few winter as caterpillars. Only a handful survive the winter as adults, most adults die when the first hard frosts come.

Lifespan/longevity 30

Most species live only one year. A few live to two or three years, and some only live for a few months. Most species spend the winter as eggs or pupae, a few winter as caterpillars. Only a handful survive the winter as adults, most adults die when the first hard frosts come.

Morphology 31

Other Physical Features: ectothermic ; bilateral symmetry

Physical description 32

This page is about Moths and Butterflies in general. There is more information about the families of Butterflies on their separate pages. Because Moths are hard to identify, we are just giving this one page for all Moth species.

Moth and Butterfly larvae (caterpillars) look fairly similar. They have long soft bodies, sometimes protected with spikes or hairs, and a head with chewing mouthparts. They have six jointed legs and then 1 to 5 (depending on group) pairs of soft unjointed legs called prolegs. Butterfly caterpillars always have 5 pairs of prolegs and are covered with fine hairs. Moth caterpillars may have either 5 pairs or prolegs (often fewer) or hairs, but not both. Most caterpillars are green or brown, and have color patterns that help camouflage them. Some caterpillars are poisonous or have toxic hairs or spines, and they often have bright warning colors to discourage predators from trying to eat them.

Adult Moths and Butterflies all have large wings that are covered with tiny scales. Each scale has a color, and together they give these insects their amazing wing patterns. No other insect groups have this coating of scales on their wings. Butterflies hold their wings up and down over their backs, while moths usually hold them folded down flat. Color patterns vary a lot, but like the caterpillars, they are usually either camouflaged or bright with warning colors.

All Butterflies and nearly all Moth species have special sucking mouthparts that coil up into a little spiral. No other insects have mouthparts that coil up this way. The bodies of these insects are soft, and covered with fine hairs. Butterflies tend to be longer and skinnier, with longer legs, and moths shorter and fatter with thicker hair, but this is not always true.

Butterflies and moths have large eyes and one pair of antennae. Butterfly antennae are thin with a thick section at the tip. Moth antennae are thin all the way to the end, or have lots of side branches so they look like feathers.

Other Physical Features: ectothermic ; bilateral symmetry ; polymorphic

Sexual Dimorphism: female larger

Pollinator 33

Butterflies and moths are important pollinators. However, many species of butterflies and moths have been declining, partially due to loss of migratory and nectar corridors. Over 200 species of butterflies and moths undergo some type of migration, and the loss of appropriate habitat the distance of the migration routes has led to declining populations. Attempts to reverse this trend are being made by local jurisdictions, conservation organizations, and federal agencies.

Compared to bees, butterflies and moths are often less efficient at transferring pollen between plants because frequently pollen does not stick to their bodies and they lack specialized structures for collecting pollen. Butterflies and moths probe for nectar and prefer flat clustered flowers that they can use as a landing pad.

Predation 34

Caterpillars hide and have camouflage, or they collect poisons from the plants they eat and hold them in their bodies. Poisonous caterpillars sometimes stay together in groups, and excrete toxic chemicals on any predators that attack them. If they are attacked they thrash around and try to bite their attacker, or play dead and drop to the ground. Some moth caterpillars have "safety lines" of silk: they drop down and hang on their silk line, then crawl back up after the predator is gone. Others build "tents" or hiding places from their silk, and stay inside when they are not eating.

Adult butterflies rely on camouflage and flight to avoid predators, and some (swallowtails and monarchs especially) are poisonous to predators. Some moths have ears that let them hear the sonar calls of bats. When they hear a Chiroptera, they quickly drop to the ground to get away. One family of moths have mostly clear wings and look like wasps, they fly in the daylight and act like stinging insects to fool their predators.

Known Predators:

  • Aves, especially perching birds
  • Sigmodontinae (eat pupae)
  • Mephitis mephitis (eat pupae)
  • Anura
  • Anura
  • Araneae, especially crab spiders and orb-weavers (eat adults)
  • Hymenoptera
  • Formicidae
  • mantids
  • Heteroptera
  • Diptera

Reproduction 35

Mating System: polyandrous

Adult females mate, and soon after they start to lay hundreds of eggs. They usually lay their eggs on the particular food plant that their young will eat. Sometimes they leave a scent mark on the plant to tell other females that they have already laid eggs there. This way they avoid having too much competition for food between their offspring.

Breeding season: Spring, Summer, Early Fall.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; year-round breeding ; sexual ; fertilization (Internal ); oviparous ; sperm-storing

There is no parental care in butterflies or moths.

Parental Investment: no parental involvement

Taxon biology 36

The insect order Lepidoptera comprises the butterflies, moths, and skippers. They can be distinguished from all other insects by their two pairs of scale-covered wings. They undergo complete metamorphosis: eggs are laid, from which larvae hatch, and a pupal stage follows, during which the final adult form takes shape.

Lepidoptera are renowned for their sense of smell. The females of most species release complex, species-specific chemical compounds (pheromones), which can be detected by males from great distances. The males locate the females by following their scent plumes, often producing their own pheromones, which are used at close range during courtship. Some moths also have a well-developed sense of hearing, which has evolved as a method to detect the sonar of bats, which are important predators of moths. One group of moths, the tiger moths (Erebidae: Arctiinae) actually produce sound to interfere with the signals of bats or to advertise chemical protection gained from plant compounds.

For most Lepidoptera species, the vast majority of the life cycle is spent in the larval stage. Most larvae feed on living plant tissue, primarily leaves, but also flowers, buds, seeds, stems, roots, and bark. Some feed externally; others are miners or borers. A few species stimulate gall formation on their host plants. Many species are very host-specific; others feed on a wide variety of plant species. The larvae of some species feed on fungi or detritus, and a few have become facultative predators or parasites. Most adult Lepidoptera live for only 1 or 2 weeks, and have a fairly specific flight period. Most adults feed on nectar, but many have atrophied mouthparts and do not feed at all, living on the fat reserves built up in the larval stage. Many species, particularly butterflies, are known to “puddle” at damp places, presumably to obtain dissolved minerals.

The Lepidoptera form an essential part of most terrestrial ecosystems. As herbivores, they help to regulate plant growth (through herbivory and nutrient cycling) and when their population levels are high they can act as agents of plant community succession. Many adult lepidopterans are important pollinators. Larvae and adults are major food sources for many other animals, including songbirds, bats, and other insects.

A few species of Lepidoptera are such good resource competitors with humans that they are considered pests. Although the proportion of species in this category is very small, it includes pests of food crops, trees and timber, and stored food products. Although only two moth species have larvae that eat silk and wool products, this extremely rare feeding habit is often misattributed to the whole group by the uninformed. Silk itself comes from human exploitation of the Silk Moth, Bombyx mori (Linnaeus).

The Lepidoptera constitute one of the four largest groups of insects, in terms of their diversity. About 180 000 species have been described (Biodiversity Institute of Ontario 2006), but many more remain undiscovered. The total number of species is probably between 300 000 and 500 000 (Scoble 1995; Kristensen et al. 2007). Most of the butterfly species have been described, but some groups of moths, particularly the micromoths, remain poorly known. The earliest Lepidoptera fossils are about 190 million years old (Grimaldi and Engel 2005), but most evolutionary radiation in the group occurred in conjunction with that of the flowering plants, in the Cretaceous Period, 65 to 145 million years ago.

Taxon biology 37

Butterflies and moths are insects in the order Lepidoptera, meaning “scale winged” in Greek for the tiny scales covering their wings and body. Like all insects, Lepidoptera have a hard outer covering called an exoskeleton which is divided into sections with joints so the animal can move. Also like other insects, butterflies and moths have six legs, a head, a thorax, and an abdomen. They are found on every continent except Antarctica, and in nearly every environment, where they serve an important role in food chains.

Recently compiled estimates of described species suggest there are ~150,000 to 160,000 Lepidoptera species, compared to ~115,000 to 120,000 ant, bee and wasp (Hymenoptera) species. (Zhang, 2011)

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