How did the word
butterfly originate ?
According to popular belief, the word
butterfly is derived from the expression 'butter-coloured fly'. This
term may have been applied to the Brimstone, one of Britain's most
well known butterflies and often the first species to be seen when
they awake from hibernation in the Spring.
However there might be a better explanation. In Old English the word
was spelt 'butterfloege' and in Old Dutch and German it was
'botervleig' and 'butterfliege' respectively. These terms all
translate as 'butter fly'. Another German name 'milchdieb'
means 'milk-thief' and may refer to the habit that butterflies once
had of being attracted to buttermilk. In eastern Europe where
ancient farming methods have not died out, butterflies are still
sometimes attracted to buttermilk being hand-churned in farmyards.
Brimstone butterfly - the original "butter-coloured fly" ? ©
Elsewhere in the world, butterflies
are known by other names. In Spain and Latin America they are called
mariposas. In Portugal they are borbolettas. To the French they are
papillons. In Russia they are babochka and in Armenia teeternig. My
favourites however are the Romanian flutturi ( because butterflies
are fluttery! ), and the Nigerian olookolombooka
( oh look - a lombooka! ).
Click here to see the historic
names of all British butterflies.
How can you tell a butterfly
from a moth ?
All butterflies and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera. This is
34 superfamilies, each with
particular characteristics. 95% of the species in these
superfamilies are nocturnal insects, and are commonly called moths.
Positioned ( in evolutionary and systematic terms ) somewhere in the
middle of all these moths are two particular superfamilies - the
Hesperioidea and Papilionoidea.
comprises of a single family Hesperiidae. Its members are called
Skippers, and are generally thought of as being butterflies. The
Papilionoidea comprises of 6 families. Five of these - the
Papilionidae, Lycaenidae, Riodinidae, Pieridae and Nymphalidae have
always been regarded as butterflies. In 2011 scientists decided as a
result of molecular analysis that members of the moth family
Hedylidae had more in common with
the traditional butterfly families than with other moths.
Consequently the Hedylidae were transferred to the Papilionoidea,
and are now regarded as butterflies! In terms of systematics the
Papilionoidea are positioned between the moth superfamilies
Geometroidea and Drepanoidea.
"Moths" are usually thought of as being drab in colour and nocturnal
in habit, but
there are plenty of very colourful day-flying moths, e.g. Urania
moths ( Uraniidae ),
Burnets ( Zygaenidae )
and Tiger moths (
Arctiidae ). Conversely while it's true that the great majority of
butterflies are colourful sun loving creatures, many tropical
species such as Opsiphanes Owlet
butterflies and Melanitis Evening
Browns are dull in colour and only fly between dusk and dawn.
often incorrectly stated that all butterflies have clubbed antennae,
thereby distinguishing them from moths, which in most cases have
tapered or pectinate antennae. It's true that butterflies in the
families Papilionidae, Lycaenidae, Riodinidae, Nymphalidae and
Pieridae have antennae with a club or swelling at the tip, but so do
moths in the families Zygaenidae, Castniidae and Sematuridae. The
nocturnal Hedylidae are anatomically somewhere between butterflies
and moths, with sombre wings and thin tapered antennae.
The antennae of most butterflies
have a swollen or clubbed tip.
© Adrian Hoskins
The antennae of skippers (
Hesperioidea ), such as Erynnis tages
have hooked tips, as do those of moths from the families Zygaenidae,
Sematuridae and Castniidae ©
A pair of day-flying moths from Peru : Urania
leilus, which could easily be mistaken for a swallowtail
butterfly; and the pretty yellow and black
Xanthiris flaveolata ©
Most moths have narrow tapered
antennae, but the males of Saturniidae have feathery plumes that are
used to detect and home in on female pheromones
© Emily Halsey
The fore and hind-wings of all
moths are physically linked in flight by a wing-coupling bristle
known as a frenulum. This is absent from the wings of butterflies,
with the exception of a single Australian species the Regent Skipper
Euschemon rafflesia, which has a
frenulum in males but not in females.
Members of the moth family Hedylidae are considered to be living
ancestors of modern butterflies, as they have a remarkable number of
common characteristics. See
Macrosoma 'Butterfly moth'.
details about classification please visit the
How do scientists
describe and name new species ?
When someone thinks
they have discovered a 'new' species, they have to send a sample
specimen to a taxonomist for analysis. By examining the structure of
the wings, legs and antennae the family and subfamily can quickly be
determined. Next, examination of the layout of the wing veins makes it
possible to ascertain whether the insect belongs to an existing genus.
If the venation is unique, a new genus has to be invented as a
"container" for the species.
Sometimes a new species is so closely related to a
known species, that the only way to distinguish them is by dissecting
and comparing their genitalia. Other methods are also employed,
including microscopic examination of wing scales, and DNA analysis.
If the butterfly does turn out to be a
new species, the taxonomist then creates a Latinised name for it, and
publishes the description and name in a recognised scientific journal.
The origin of
scientific names varies enormously. Some species are named after Greek
gods, some get their name from the place where the butterfly was
discovered, or are named in honour of some eminent entomologist. It is
considered unethical for people to name a species after themselves,
but there is at least one instance where someone got away with it - a
scarab beetle named Cartwrightia cartwrighti
Names are often descriptive of the
caterpillar's foodplant : the Orange tip
Anthocharis cardamines gets its name from the plant garlic
mustard Cardamines pratensis. Equally
often names refer to the colour or pattern of the butterfly - the
Clouded Yellow's species name crocea
means "deep yellow", while the Eyed Hawkmoth's name
S. ocellatus means "eye" and refers to
the eye-like markings on the moth's hindwings.
The Charismatic Metalmark
Taxonomists are not
usually renowned for having a great sense of humour, but amongst their
more hilarious moments they have managed to provide us with a few
amusing scientific names. Hence we have a metalmark from Colombia,
named by Hall and Harvey in 2002 as Charis matic
! It has since been renamed rather less attractively as
Detritivora matic. The new genus name
refers to the fact that the caterpillars feed on decaying leaves and
other detritus on the forest floor.
dullest Skipper ?
Sometimes it can be difficult to think up names for some of the more
mundane looking species, particularly for the hundreds of
near-identical dull brown skipper species found in the neotropics. In
1997 the taxonomist Austin was apparently so unimpressed with his
latest discovery that he gave a
'new<' Mexican species the
unfortunate name Inglorius mediocris,
which needs little translation !
Below is it's official
scientific description :
Austin, new species
Description. Palpi slender, third segment straight, protruding
well beyond second segment, about equal to length of dorsal edge
of second segment; antennae long, extending beyond end of
forewing discal cell, nearly 60% length of forewing costa, black
with pale ochreous beneath distad and below club; club just over
1/4 (28%) antennal length, bent to apiculus at thickest part,
apiculus length about 2x club width, nudum grey, of 12 segments
(3 on club, 9 on apiculus); forewing discal cell slightly
produced, 75% length of anal margin, origin of vein CuA2 nearer
to CuA, than to wing base, hindwing discal cell just over 1/2
wing width; mid tibiae with four fine spines on inner surface
and single pair of spurs, hind tibiae with two pairs of spurs;
forewing produced with slight concavity between CuA! and 2A;
hindwing convex anteriorly, somewhat concave between CuAj and
2A; no apparent secondary sexual characters. Male genitalia with
short tegumen; uncus longer than tegumen, undivided, and hood-like
over gnathos; gnathos as long as uncus, divided, extending
laterad of uncus in dorsal view and as rectangular flaps mesad
in ventral view; vinculum sinuate; saccus short; valva very
long, ampulla/costa long and sloping somewhat downward caudad,
harpe long, roughly triangular ending in an inward turned point
caudad, dorsal margin undulate, weakly serrate cephalad;
aedeagus tubular (anterior portion missing), caudal end expanded
terminally in lateral view, no apparent cornutus.
Taxonomy pages to read more
about classification, or
here for a further selection of fascinating scientific
How long do
butterflies & moths live ?
It varies considerably according to species. The
average lifespan of an adult butterfly is about 2 weeks, but some
species ( e.g. Heliconius erato and
Taygetis mermeria from South America,
and Gonepteryx rhamni from Europe ) can
live for at least 11 months.
whole lifecycle from egg to adult takes about 3 weeks to complete in
many tropical species. In
temperate regions however there are usually only 1 or 2 generations
a year, while in the sub-arctic tundra several species take 2 full
years to complete their lifecycles.
The longest-lived species of all is a moth by the
Gynaephora groenlandica, which lives on
Ellesmere Island in the Canadian arctic. The adult moth, a member of
the family Lymantriidae, lives for only a few days, but it has been
estimated ( Kukal & Kevan, 1987 ) that its caterpillar, known as the
Arctic Woolly Bear, takes an amazing 14 years to reach full growth -
although later research by Morewood & Ring suggests that the
lifecycle can sometimes be completed in only 7 years.
and it's close
menhuanensis are almost certainly the
longest-lived species of Lepidoptera on Earth. Temperatures in their
Arctic habitats can drop as low as minus 60° C, forcing the
caterpillars to spend 10 or 11 months in hibernation, frozen solid.
Only for a few short weeks in June and July is it warm enough for
them to defrost, allowing them to feed and grow. In their final year
they pupate in a thin silk cocoon. The adult moths emerge a few days
later, find mates, lay their eggs and die.
How many butterfly
species are there in the world ?
A study in
1968 concluded that the 920,000 species of insect then known to
exist accounted for 85% of all known animal species on Earth. The
insects already known at that time included no less than 300,000
species of Coleoptera ( beetles ), 90,000 Diptera ( flies ), 108,000
Hymenoptera ( bees, wasps and ants ), and 113,000 Lepidoptera (
butterflies & moths ).
Since then the
number of known butterflies and moths has increased dramatically.
This is partly because vast areas of formerly inaccessible
rainforest have now been surveyed, and new species discovered.
Another reason is that advances in taxonomy, phylogenetics and
cladistics have led to many taxa that were formerly considered to be
subspecies, being "elevated" to full species status.
"Butterflies of Mexico & USA" ( Scott, 1992 ) a census estimated
that there were approx 14750 butterfly species ( including skippers
) worldwide. In 2007 Hoskins collated data from a number of sources
and produced a
World Butterfly Census which
enumerates 17657 currently known species.
The true total will never be known,
as many species will become extinct before they are discovered, but
is likely to be in the region of 18,000 - 21,000 species.
Why are butterflies so
diverse in the tropics ?
are several contributing factors. Firstly
there are a
great many more biological and climatic niches to be occupied in the
tropics. In Peru for example, where there are more butterfly species
than anywhere else on Earth, there are deserts, paramo grasslands,
rainforests and cloudforests. Each of these habitats contains many
sub-habitats, each with its own fauna, e.g. a rainforest will have
an entirely different range of species in the canopy, sub-canopy and
Secondly, during ice ages, it is only the tropical and sub-tropical
regions which are able to support butterflies, so these become
refugiae into which species from elsewhere contract. The butterflies
that normally live in temperate regions either become extinct or
migrate and survive on remote mountains in the tropics where
conditions are suitable for them. When the Earth warms up again, and
temperate regions once again become habitable by butterflies, they
are recolonised slowly, either by species that return from the
tropical mountains, or by tropical lowland species which are able to
adapt to the new conditions. Temperate butterflies are therefore
comprised of a small proportion of species that re-emerge from the
Thirdly, the climate, and the
evergreen nature of the foliage in the tropical lowlands, enables
many more generations to breed each year - perhaps as many as 8
generations for some species, compared with just one or two in
temperate regions. This, according to the Theory of Evolution
provides many more opportunities for new forms to arise.
How do you tell a male
from a female butterfly ?
many species there are obvious visual differences. The Polyommatinae
for example usually have bright blue males, but the females are
darker and often have orange lunules around the margins.
The males of many species have dark streaks of androconia (
pheromone producing scales ) on their forewings, as with
Argynnis paphia and
Common Blue Polyommatus
Common Blue Polyommatus
differences in other species may be more subtle - males generally
have more angular wings, longer thinner bodies, brighter colours,
and stronger patterns than females of the same species. There are
usually obvious differences in behaviour as well - males tend to
actively patrol their habitats, or to establish a small territory
which they defend against other butterflies. Females by comparison
are far more sedentary, and in the early part of their flight period
tend to stay in areas where both adult and larval food sources are
What is the most
widespread butterfly in the world ?
There are several very widespread species
including the Monarch Danaus plexippus,
the Plain Tiger Danaus chrysippus, the
Long-tailed Blue Lampides boeticus, and
the Small White
Pieris rapae, all of which are
found on at least 3 continents.
Painted Lady Vanessa cardui
is the most widely
distributed butterfly in the world, found in North America from
Alaska to Mexico, and south to the Caribbean islands and Venezuela.
In the Old World it occurs throughout Europe and temperate Asia,
over most of Africa, Madagascar, the Azores, the Canary Islands, the
Arab states, and across to the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka. In
the Far East it occurs in Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo and Sumatra -
and extends it's range south through the Indonesian islands to
Western Australia. The New Zealand Painted Lady
Vanessa kershawi is also regarded by
some taxonomists to be a sub-species of cardui.
Painted Lady Vanessa cardui ©
The cosmopolitan distribution of the Painted Lady is caused by a
combination of it's very strong migratory behaviour and polyphagous
nature - in Britain its caterpillars feed almost exclusively on
thistles, but elsewhere they utilise a vast range of foodplants
amongst the Compositae,
Boraginaceae, Hydrophyllaceea, Ulmaceae, Rutaceae, Chenopodiaceae,
Plantaginaceae, Leguminosae, Urticaceae, Verbenaceae, Cucurbitaceae,
Cruciferae, Umbelliferae, Rosaceae, Rhamnaceae, and even one
or two grasses !
Which is the largest
butterfly in the world ?
The female of the Alexandra Birdwing
Ornithoptera alexandrae, found
in Papua New Guinea has a wingspan of about 30cms ( 12" ). The
largest butterflies in South America are the Owl butterfly
Caligo idomeneus ( 14cms ), and
Morpho helena, the iridescent blue male
reaching 13cms, and the orange and brown female 15cms. In Africa the
largest species is Druryeia antimachus
Argynnis paphia male
Argynnis paphia female
Large Skipper Ochlodes
Large Skipper Ochlodes
Papua New Guinea
....and the smallest ?
At the opposite extreme are the tiny Lycaenids
Itylus titicaca from Bolivia and
Chilades miniscula from Madagascar. The
tiniest of them all however is a dull brown Lycaenid
Micropsyche ariana, found only in
Afghanistan, which measures just 8mm across the wings.
....and the largest moth ?
The largest moth in the
in terms of wingspan ( measured across forewing at widest point ) is
the White Witch Thysania agrippina from
South America, which measures as much as 32cms across the wings. It
is generally accepted however that the title of largest moth should
go to the Giant Atlas moth Attacus atlas.
The latter has a slightly smaller wingspan at 30cms, but a greater
The Giant Atlas moth is a common species across much of
Giant Atlas moth
Why are tropical butterflies and
moths so big ?
Insects are cold blooded, so in
cooler climates caterpillars grow slowly and are only able to
produce one or two generations of small or medium sized butterflies
or moths per year.
In hot climates they can feed
almost continually and grow much more rapidly, so tropical species
have been able to evolve to produce much larger caterpillars,
resulting in larger adults.
There are limits to the maximum
size a species can attain however. The limitations of the insect
respiratory system make larger bodies less efficient. Consequently
large butterflies and moths tend to react and fly more slowly than
their smaller counterparts, and are easy prey for birds.
Note also that not all tropical
Lepidoptera are large - there are many very small species. These are
the result of an alternative strategy whereby many species produce
several generations of small insects per year, rather than a single
generation of large ones.
Which country has the most
butterfly species ?
Peru has over 3,700 butterfly
species - more than any other country and equal to about 20% of the
world total. The butterflies of Peru however are still vastly
under-recorded, and it is estimated that as many as 4,200 will
eventually be discovered.
The highest known concentration of
species is at Pakitza, an area of about 4000 hectares within Manu
national park. Over 1,300 species have so far been recorded at
The great diversity and abundance
of butterflies in Peru is partly due to the extraordinary range of
climatic conditions and vast diversity of habitats. Together these
create a vast array of ecological niches in which species can exist
Not far behind Peru are Brazil,
Colombia and Ecuador, each of which have about 3,200 species. In all
of Central and South America there are about 7,500 species, compared
to about 3,600 for the whole of Africa.