Everything About Butterflies and Moths: Caterpillars, Monarch Butterfly, Viceroy, Skipper and others

Butterflies and Moths


Ads
A picture of a Sulfur on Flower
Photo by:
Irvine Cushing/
Oxford Scientific Films Ltd.
Butterflies and Moths, members of an insect order characterized by two pairs of large, scale-covered, membranous wings. Adults are additionally characterized by a pair of well-developed compound eyes, mouthparts consisting of a long, coiled, sucking tube, or proboscis, and prominent antennae. Approximately 148,000 species are known worldwide; by 1993, 11,286 had been described in North America. As a group of animals, butterflies and moths are surpassed in diversity only by the beetles.

Characteristics

A picture of Tropical Butterflies and Moths
Photo by:
Dorling Kindersley
No absolutely consistent characteristics exist for separating butterflies and moths. Butterflies generally have scaleless, threadlike antennae with a club on the end. Their wings are often brightly colored; the wing color and pattern play a key role in mate recognition and courtship. Nearly all butterflies fly during daylight, but some tropical species fly at dawn or dusk, and a few are nocturnal. The largest butterflies (birdwings of Melanesia) have wingspreads of up to 25 cm (10 in); the smallest (pygmy blues) may barely exceed 1 cm (0.4 in).

A picture of a Darwin’s Hawk Moth (click to enlarge)
click to enlarge
Photo by:
Dorling Kindersley
Moth antennae come in a variety of forms but they are often feathery in appearance. Although many moths, especially day-flying ones, are brightly colored, most are dull shades of brown. Males are often attracted to females by a powerful chemical signal that the females release from special glands. Most moths fly at night, although many also fly during the day, especially in colder climates where evening temperatures often drop to freezing. (The attraction of moths to a light source at night is a reflex; wing motion is reduced on the side struck by the light, causing them to turn in that direction.) The largest species are the giant silkworm moths of Asia, which may exceed 30 cm (12 in) in wingspread. The wings of the smallest moths may span only a few millimeters.

Life Cycle and Nutrition

A picture of a Butterfly Pollinating a Flower (click to enlarge)
click to enlarge
Photo by:
Dorling Kindersley
Butterflies and moths undergo complete metamorphosis. Their life cycle consists of four stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (cocoon or chrysalis), and adult. After mating, the adult females of most species usually lay eggs on a plant that serves as the food source for the larvae when they hatch. In a few species, however, the larvae are predators. Some butterfly caterpillars, for example, eat aphids; some form complex associations with ants, live in their nests, and eat ant larvae. Some larvae eat stored cereals or even woolen clothes. Caterpillars have rather elastic cylindrical bodies, simple eyes, chewing mouthparts, three pairs of true legs on the thorax, and usually five pairs of prolegs (legs that occur only on larvae) on the abdomen. They eat continuously, periodically shedding their skin as they grow to hundreds of times their original size, and finally reach the stage where they spin cocoons and become pupae. During pupation, the structures of the larvae totally transform; internal systems are reorganized and adult external structures develop.

Caterpillar Pulling Free From Egg
Photo by:
Dorling Kindersley
Adult butterflies and moths feed on a wide variety of substances: nectar, pollen, rotting fruit, carrion, dung, urine, and other plant and animal secretions. Most species actively seek flower nectar; they aid in plant reproduction by pollinating, carrying pollen from flower to flower. In many species, such as sulfur butterflies, egg production is impossible without nectar meals. In others, such as the checkerspot butterflies, unfed females lay about half as many eggs as those provided nectar. A few adult moths do not have functional mouthparts and lay all their eggs without obtaining nourishment.

Range and Habitat

A picture of a Monarch Migration (click to enlarge)
click to enlarge
Photo by:
G. G. Dimijian/Photo Researchers, Inc.
Larvae of butterflies and moths are usually found feeding on a single species or a few related species of plants. This preference results in the isolation of many species in colonies in particular habitats. Other species may have a more extensive range, especially those that lay eggs on widely distributed or weedy plants. A few butterflies, including the well-known monarch, may migrate thousands of kilometers to spend the winter in large aggregations at select sites. In some species, competition between larvae for host plants produces population cycles; large populations may build and then "crash," with most individuals dying. In other species, changes in population size are due primarily to climatic conditions.

A picture of a Mourning Cloak
Photo by:
L. West/Bruce Coleman Inc.
Butterflies and moths are found in a wide variety of habitats, from tundra to rain forest and from below sea level to nearly 6000 m (nearly 20,000 ft) in elevation. In tropical areas, where they reach their greatest diversity, many butterflies may fly throughout the year. Continual good weather and ample resources allow for rapid larval development and long adult life, and as many as 15 generations may occur in one year. In temperate habitats, however, butterflies and moths enter an inactive stage, or diapause, during their development, to avoid severe weather conditions. Diapause may occur in the egg, larval, pupal, or adult stage. In snowy climates, winter hibernation is common; in areas with hot, dry seasons, summer diapause (estivation) is the rule. Larval development is generally slower in temperate areas, and an adult's life span is often only a few days or weeks. In alpine or arctic habitats, growing seasons may be so short that many species require two years for development.

More about Butterflies and Moths...

Share this page with your friends!

Ads
Do you like this article?
Support our project, so we could place more interesting information here! Click here for details.