Haven’t we all spent some part of our childhood running around this magnificent species? Butterflies are pretty and have the ability to appeal to the imagination of the onlookers. They are not only pleasant to the eyes but are also synonymous with vibrance and good luck.
These insects are spread across the globe and have numerous species. Unfortunately, some of them have now gone extinct, and there is a need to conserve the remaining ones.
This article will walk you through butterflies’ natural history, appearance, behavior, lifespan, and classification, along with various other elements associated with this adorable creature!
Butterfly Natural History
One major element through which the researchers analyze the natural history of a living organism is its fossil record. However, when it comes to butterflies, the researchers are in for a fix as there are very limited fossils available.
Nonetheless, according to various studies, the ancient butterflies living some forty million years ago were known as Prodryas persophone. In terms of features and physical characteristics, they were quite similar to those we see today.
According to many researchers, the time when the butterflies actually developed was somewhere around the Cretaceous period. This time is also known as the age of flowering plants, which led to the development of butterflies as well. We are talking about some 65 million years back!
However, the Cretaceous period then showcased a mass extinction that didn’t only wipe out all the dinosaurs but also affected the butterflies living on Earth. As a matter of fact, out of all the sub-families of butterflies, only eight survived, while the remaining appeared later on.
It’s a known fact that butterflies actually evolved from moths. The name of the first butterfly known to humans is Protocoeliades kristenseni, having a connection with the Hesperiidae family.
The oldest butterfly of American origin is considered to be the Eocene Prodryas Persephone, and it has its history spanning back to as many as thirty-four million years.
Butterflies are probably the most beautiful flying insect out there. They are colorful, adorable, and have a vibrant presence. In terms of appearance, butterflies also have six joint legs, which is common in other insects as well.
Apart from this, they have a pair of antennae on their heads, exoskeleton, and compound eyes. They have three body parts, which makes them similar to other insects. These body parts include the head, thorax, and abdomen.
Furthermore, the entire body of this creature is concealed in sensory hair that’s quite tiny. It gives them colorful patterns which are different from the others.
Four wings of these brightly coloured flying insects let them fly over the flowers. It’s actually the muscles of the tiny structures of the thorax that help the butterflies move their wings.
The adult butterfly has six fully functional legs attached to the thorax. What sets these creatures apart from others are the club-tipped antennae, which make them vibrant even from afar.
Butterflies are quite active at all times, and it must be very rare for you to see them not doing anything! They are either flying or sitting on various plant species or rotting fruit. They perform various activities throughout the day and are pretty active at all times.
Also, you would be amazed to know that these insects perform activities at specific times. This means that they have a dedicated schedule for everything. Be it migrating or basking, perching, puddling, or hibernating; every activity has a fixed timing and duration.
Butterfly Caterpillars and Adults Feeding
Just like their schedules, butterflies are also very particular when it comes to food. Compared to the caterpillar stage, adult butterflies have very distinct feeding preferences. Actually, they have different mouth parts during these two stages, which is why these butterflies feed differently.
When the females lay their eggs, they are very precise about the kind of plant on which they want to do so, owing to the food availability and suitability for the caterpillars when they hatch out of the eggs.
As these small newborns cannot make quick and extensive movements, they need food and nutrients to be readily available where they are.
Once eggs are hatched, these caterpillars perform only one activity: eat. Once they grow a bit, they pupate in the pupal stage and grow mandibles, the chewing part of the mouth.
Many farmers consider these butterfly caterpillars their biggest enemy as they end up damaging the crops by acting as pests, devouring the edibles from these crops.
Adult species fly around the garden to find feed per their preferences. The butterfly wings help them wander around and get attracted to brightly coloured flowers and fruits.
Flower nectar is definitely the preferred food of many butterflies, while a lot of them love feeding on rotting fruit as well.
Basking To Warm-Up Butterfly Wings
Butterflies love to bask in the sun, which gives them the much-needed energy to fly. This is owing to the fact that butterflies are naturally cold-blooded insects. This means that they can’t regulate their body temperature, and it changes according to the environment they are living in.
If the atmosphere is cold, they get cold, and when it’s warm, they end up being warm themselves as well. This is why, when the temperature around them drops below 65° F, it gets tough for them to fly as they need some amount of warmth for that.
Most species find a sunny spot where they can bask and bring their body temperature back to normal. They simply spread their wings vertically and let the sunlight warm them up.
Migration is a prominent behavior that most butterflies showcase. It’s usually done by those butterflies who cannot bear the cold weather and want to escape it.
At times, most butterflies travel thousands of miles to reach the overwintering sites. However, specific species like the Cabbage butterfly and the Painted Lady can move only a few hundred miles while migrating.
It’s mainly the Monarchs who love to travel thousands of miles, even to the tropics, while migrating. A Monarch would find the overwintering sites no matter how far they are.
Mating and Butterfly Eggs Laying
Yet another important behavior that butterflies showcase is mating and laying eggs. The male butterfly finds out the female of its own species by looking for wings with similar patterns.
Various species have distinct coloration and patterns, and those with similar patterns belong to the same species.
Once the right mate is found, the male flies closer to the female and releases a special chemical known as pheromones to send matting signals.
The fluttering of the wings also sends signals to the female. You would be amazed to know that they do the courtship dance with special patterns to swoon and attract mates. Both butterflies then choose a spot for mating.
After mating, the male butterfly usually dies while the female lays eggs. The next task for the females after mating is to look for a plant where they can lay eggs.
The choice is made considering the kind of food available for the caterpillar. Where some times, the female lays a single egg; other times, there are clusters laid by her.
Butterfly Life Span
Butterflies have a short life span; the longest they can be around is nine months, while most die before it. Commonly, they live for around two to four weeks. However, this is contingent upon many factors, including the weather.
A great fact to consider here is that butterflies who migrate to warmer regions like the tropics live longer, while other butterflies who stay in cold habitats end up losing their lives to the weather conditions.
Alongside this, butterflies living in a wild habitat are more prone to predator attacks.
Butterfly Life Cycle
The life cycle of butterflies and moths includes four stages that lead to their metamorphosis. These are explained in detail here:
This is the first stage of the life cycle, where the female lays eggs on the plant specifically chosen by her as it turns into the major food source for the caterpillar coming out of the egg. The season of hatching is also distinct for each species of butterflies.
Eggs are laid on plants by the adult female butterfly. These plants will then become the food for the hatching caterpillars. These butterfly eggs are tiny, which is why the mothers look for concealed plants to lay them in order to avoid attacks by predators.
The second stage in the lifecycle of butterflies and moths is the larva stage. The other name for this stage is the caterpillar stage; the only thing this caterpillar has to do is eat. All the food it consumes at this stage gets stored in the body. It then uses it when it turns into an adult.
After some time, this caterpillar’s skin splits and sheds at least four to five times. The growing larvae speed is pretty fast, especially for the Monarch, which grows around two inches long on a weekly basis.
Also known as the transition stage, the pupa is the third stage. Butterflies that reach this stage are also called Chrysalis or cocoon, and they finally stop eating!
At this stage, the pupa goes suspended under a leaf. However, in some species, it hides in the leaves as well. In moths, they are concealed behind silk cocoons and stay well protected.
This is the stage where some really massive changes happen. Special cells from larvae grow and lead to the development of wings, legs, and eyes along with other parts of the body.
This is the last stage of the cycle and is known as the adult or fully grown stage. The butterflies look extremely different in terms of their appearance in this stage.
They have really long legs, feathery antennae, and compound eyes. Their wings are quite big, especially of the Morpho butterflies, whose wings can be as big as eight inches.
After this stage, the butterflies don’t grow anymore. Also, this is the time when the four stages of the lifecycle come to an end.
Butterfly Distinctive Characteristics
A lot of characteristics of butterflies are pretty distinctive. For instance, their wings are actually transparent. The structural colors and patterns that you see are the result of a multitude of miniature scales that cover these wings. Chitin is the protein that makes these wings transparent but quite sturdy!
The lifespan of these insects is pretty small. They live only for a few weeks, during which they move through various stages of metamorphosis, mate, migrate and then die.
Some species of butterflies can’t chew. This is why they feed on a liquid diet, and using a special organ called a proboscis, they consume the fruit nectar.
The wings of butterflies are pretty sturdy and, a lot of times, help them fight off attacking predators.
Butterflies belong to the kingdom Animalia and Phylum Arthropoda, while their class is
Insecta and order is Lepidoptera. Talking about the suborder, it’s Rhopalocera, while this creature is further divided into various Subgroups.
Where the superfamily Hedyloidea has Hedylidae, the superfamily Papilionoidea includes Nymphalidae, Hesperiidae, Papilionidae, Lycaenidae, and Riodinidae.
All the butterflies belonging to these subfamilies can be recognized through their physical features.
Butterflies are quite crucial in the overall ecological system. They are also a reason for the rich diversity on Earth and help in the survival of other organisms.
Parasitoids, Predators, and Pathogens
Though they are considered pests for the farmers, they actually play a great part in the survival of plants. While moving from one plant to another, they collect pollen on their bodies and take them to other plants. Hence, it leads to the production of new seeds.
Furthermore, the caterpillar is a major food source for many predators, including mice, turtles, large insects, and spiders. For wasps, they may be the primary source of food.
The beauty of the existence of butterflies is in their help in pollination.
When they land on a flower to feed on the nectar, pollens get attached to their bodies. When they sit on some other plant, the pollens move there and get transferred from one flower to the other. This way, the production of fruits and flowers speeds up.
Being closely linked to certain plants, the extinction of these host plants can be a direct indicator of these butterflies going rare as well. The diversity of both plants and butterflies is interconnected; hence the change in one’s visibility can affect others as well.
One of the most endangered species of this beautiful insect is the Monarch butterfly, which is even officially declared threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
There are numerous reasons behind these insects getting endangered. The most prominent of them is surely the threat that is associated with pesticides. Loaded with chemicals, these pesticides affect the butterflies negatively and lead to their death.
Climate change and the modification of habitats are also significant reasons why many butterfly species are declining rapidly.
The Difference Between a Butterfly and a Moth
Many people find it tough to differentiate between a butterfly and a moth. Well, in terms of appearance, butterflies are smooth, while moths have furry bodies.
Apart from this, where the butterflies fold wings vertically across their backs, moths hold them in the shape of a tent to conceal their abdomens.
Also, the butterflies are far more vibrant in appearance compared to moths. Commonly, moths have drab-colored wings that are much smaller in size.
The shape of antennas also tells them apart. Where most moths have fuzzy ones that are pretty stout, butterflies have slender and long antennas that have cubbed tips.
How Long Do Monarch Butterflies Live?
The minimum age of a Monarch butterfly is two weeks, while to the maximum, it can live for six weeks.
However, this is contingent on the predators that live in the surroundings and timely migrations, as those that migrate at the right time have a longer lifespan.
What Do Butterflies Eat?
Where some butterflies feed on solids and consume flowers, others are restricted to a liquid diet and consume fruit nectar.
How Long Do Butterflies Live?
Butterflies have short lives and live from two to eight weeks only. The longest life is that of the Monarch butterflies, which can live up to ten weeks.
What do butterflies symbolize?
The metamorphosis of butterflies symbolizes change, transformation, and positivity.
Are Butterflies Insects?
Yes, butterflies are insects and probably the only ones that have scales that cover their wings.
Butterflies teach humans the lesson of change and transformation throughout their life history. In addition, they add beauty to the surroundings by flying around, spreading vibrance and liveliness everywhere.
However, with many species going extinct, it’s high time we humans came up with a solid plan of action to conserve them.