7 facts about butterflies

Be prepared to get all aflutter as we reveal the secrets of some of the most colourful characters in the animal kingdom

 

Moth or butterfly? Look closely…

Both belonging to the order Lepidoptera, butterflies and moths share many similarities, but there are a few clues you can use to tell them apart. Behaviour can be misleading (for instance, there are daytime moths and night-time butterflies), so your safest bet is biology. The vast majority of butterflies have straight antennae with club-like tips, compared to moths’ tapered or more feathery feelers. An even more reliable distinction is the wing shape; moths’ forewings and hindwings are joined by a structure known as the frenulum, whereas butterfly wings are separated.

 

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Caterpillars digest themselves during metamorphosis

As we’re taught from an early age, a butterfly’s life is the ultimate transformation story: egg, caterpillar, pupa, butterfly. But did you ever hear what was happening inside the cocoon? Once within its chrysalis, the grub releases a cocktail of enzymes which essentially melts its own body! The only things that survive in this ‘caterpillar soup’ are groups of specialised cells known as imaginal discs. Within these, the blueprints of the adult butterfly are stored.

 

Caterpillars can be deadly

The larvae of giant silkworm moths (Lonomia) are known to have killed hundreds of people in South America, who fell foul of their built-in bioweapon. The hairs covering these caterpillars’ backs contain a powerful anticoagulant. If too much of this venom gets into our system (20 or more stings), it can cause inflammation and nausea, and if not treated, internal bleeding, kidney failure and even death.

 

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They are true visionaries

Like many insects, butterflies have super-advanced compound eyes made up of thousands of ‘mini-eyes’ known as ommatidia. In fact, Lepidoptera are believed to have the widest visual range in the animal kingdom, perceiving a far wider spectrum of colours than we can; some are even able to see UV light. Photoreceptors across different species are often attuned to see specific colours to help them spot their favourite flora.

 

One year is a grand old age

Butterflies are renowned for their short lifespan, with most not surviving beyond a month. However, brimstones (Gonepteryx) – so-named for their yellow colouration – are a rare exception. They have often been recorded living for 12-13 months. The secret to their longevity? They are some of the few butterflies to hibernate over the winter, which means they avoid the year’s worst weather and conserve a lot of energy.

 

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Their wings are covered in scales, not dust

You often hear that butterflies are dusty or powdery, but that’s not strictly true. Their wings are actually comprised of thousands of tiny scales made of chitin – the same protein that forms our hair and fingernails. As well as controlling airflow during flight, these scales also act as mini solar panels for absorbing heat and lend these show-stopping bugs their dazzling colours.

 

Butterflies are grounded by the cold…

Butterflies are heliotherms – that is, they rely solely on the Sun for heat. In order to function, they generally need an ambient temperature of at least 13 degrees Celsius (55 degrees Fahrenheit).

 

 

 

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Image from www.flickr.com/photos/stuutje

 

Photographs: dasWebweibSmabs SputzerConal GallagherneiljsDawn Huczek