Class: Insecta (Insects)
Familes: 124, divided into two main groups, Homoneura and Heteroneura
Species: about 165,000 known species
Size: largest—Atlas moth Attacus atlas at 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) across and Queen Alexandra's birdwing butterfly Ornithoptera alexandrae at 11 inches (27.9 centimeters) across; smallest—leaf miner moth Phyllocnistis spp at 0.12 inch (0.3 centimeter) across and western pygmy blue butterfly Brephidium exilis at 0.5 inch (1.3 centimeter) across
Weight: not really known, but approximately 0.0001 ounce (0.003 grams) for the smallest to 0.1 ounce (3 grams) for the largest
Adult life span: 2 weeks to 2 months for most species; longest is 9 to 12 months for the migrating monarch Danaus plexippus
Number of eggs: anywhere from just a few to thousands
Size at hatching: usually 0.1 inch (3 millimeters) or less
Development: varies widely among species, but typically several days for egg to hatch, 2 to 4 weeks as a caterpillar, and 1 week to 2 months or more in pupa form. For some species this process can take up to 7 years.
difficult to determine, since few studies have been conducted; currently 9 species are listed as critical risk, including David's tiger Parantica davidi, Sri Lankan rose Atrophaneura jophon, and Prairie sphinx moth Euproserpinus wiesti
In some places, the number of caterpillars feeding
on plants is so large that you can actually hear them munching.
The Asian vampire moth lives up to its name! It has a tough proboscis to break through thick-skinned fruits, but sometimes it also sucks the blood of water buffalo or deer.
Many adult butterflies never excrete waste—they use up all they eat for energy!
"Puddle clubs" are groups of butterflies that gather at mud puddles and wet soil to suck up salts and minerals.
Butterflies can see red, green, and yellow, but they also see color in the ultraviolet range, which reveals patterns on flowers—and other butterflies—that we can't see.
Some Arctic moths may spend 14 years as caterpillars, only active a few weeks each summer.
Butterfly wings are actually clear—the colors and patterns we see are made by the reflection of the tiny scales covering them.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park: see a variety of exotic butterfly species
in the Park’s Hidden Jungle
exhibit during our annual Butterfly Jungle event each spring.
San Diego Zoo: Butterfly Garden in the Children's Zoo
Butterfly or moth: what's the difference?
Technically speaking, butterflies are types of moths. But there
are some ways to tell them apart. Butterflies generally have long,
that are rounded on the ends, while most moths have thick, feathery
antennae. Moths also tend to have larger, fuzzier bodies than butterflies.
Most moths fly at night, while most butterflies fly during the day.
Because of when they're active, butterflies tend to be more colorful
than moths, but that's not always the case. You can see another
difference when they're resting: most moths flatten their wings
out over their bodies, while most butterflies raise them up and
against each other. And although both butterflies and moths develop
in a chrysalis,
most moths also spin a protective cocoon.
When people talk about this family of insects in
general, they may use "butterflies" or "moths" to
describe them, and both are considered correct.
The amazing metamorphosis
of the most incredible things about butterflies is the way they
change from crawling caterpillars into winged beauties. This process
is called metamorphosis, and it has fascinated and perplexed people
for centuries. In fact, scientists still aren't sure exactly how
it works! What we do know is that when a caterpillar seals itself
into a chrysalis, chemicals are released from its body that change
and rearrange all the cells to create the butterfly's new shape,
including its wings. So how does the caterpillar know when it's
time to change? Its brain produces a chemical called "juvenile
hormone." As long as the level of this hormone in its body
is high, it keeps eating, growing, and shedding. But when the hormone
level drops, then the caterpillar "knows" that it's time
to move on to the next stage.
Life cycle steps
The egg— An adult female lays her eggs on the right plants for the caterpillars to eat when they hatch from the eggs. Some butterflies will lay their eggs on only one type of plant!
The caterpillar— When the egg hatches, a small caterpillar emerges and eats the egg casing. It then starts to eat the plant. Caterpillars are basically munching machines. This is the stage when most of the eating and growing happens, and each time the caterpillar gets too big for its skin, it sheds and starts again.
The metamorphosis— The last time the caterpillar sheds, a hard casing forms around it, called a chrysalis or pupa. Moths add more protection to this—they spin a silky cocoon as well. The magic metamorphosis happens at this stage, and when the butterfly breaks out, it is an adult that can reproduce, fly in search of food, and migrate if necessary. It does need to plump up its wings first, filling them with fluid then letting them dry and harden.
On the wing
Do you know what butterfly wings are made of? They're actually pretty complex. The main structure of the wing is made of thin layers of chitin, a protein that also makes up the outer "shell" of the body. These layers are so thin you can see through them. They are covered with thousands of tiny modified hairs called scales, which create the colors and patterns we see. These scales are the "dust" that comes off a butterfly wing if you touch it. The wings also contain a system of veins that circulate blood, and strong muscles on the butterfly's body move the wings up and down. The wings actually move in a figure "8" motion that pushes the butterfly through the air.
Moth and butterfly wings are very delicate, and can easily rip or
tear from the slightest touch. Please look at these amazing creatures
with just your eyes, not your fingers!
Fast, high, and far
The fastest butterflies are the skippers Euschemon ssp, which can fly at 37 miles per hour (60 kilometers per hour), but most butterflies fly at 5 to 12 miles per hour (8 to 20 kilometers per hour). A few species can fly at great heights, as much as 10,000 feet (3,050 meters). Some species can also cover long distances, like the monarch butterfly Danaus plexippus, which can migrate 2,000 miles (3,218 kilometers) or more.
Can you taste with your feet?
You probably wouldn't want to! But this is one of the ways butterflies tell what plants to lay their eggs on. They have taste sensors on their feet, and by standing on a leaf, they can taste it to see if their caterpillars can eat it. Most adult butterflies can't bite or chew. They eat mainly liquids like nectar, sap, juices from fruits, and sometimes even fluids from carcasses. They have a long, tubelike tongue called a proboscis, which works like a straw to suck up liquid. When they're not using it, it stays coiled up like a garden hose. The Morgan's sphinx moth Xanthopan morgani has the longest proboscis, 12 to 14 inches (30 to 35 centimeters), to get the nectar out of a deep orchid.