Butterflies and Moths – Learn the Difference
Do you always know if it is a butterfly you are watching flutter around?
Many people confuse butterflies and moths. Of all the insect groups, we are probably most familiar with the butterflies and moths. We see moths fluttering around our porch lights, and watch butterflies flutter around flowers in our gardens.
However, there is no real difference between butterflies and moths, and both are classified in the order Lepidoptera. This order contains over 100 families of insects worldwide, some of which are moths and some of which are butterflies. However, there are some differences in physical and behavioral characteristics that are easy to learn and recognize.
The physical differences between Moths and Butterflies
Shape of Antennae
The most visible difference between moths and butterflies is in their antennae. Most butterflies have thin filament-like antennae that are club-shaped at the end. While moths often have comb-like or feathery antennae. There are, however, exceptions to this rule and a few moths have clubbed antennae. Some butterflies, like examples from the forests of central Africa, lack the clubbed ends.
Moth vs Butterfly Pupae
Most moth caterpillars spin a cocoon made of silk within which they metamorphose into the pupal stage. Most butterflies on the other hand form an exposed pupa which is also termed as a chrysalis.
However there are many exceptions to this rule, for example the Hawk moths form an exposed chrysalis which however is underground. Gypsy moths sometimes form butterfly-style pupae, hanging on twigs or tree bark, although usually they create flimsy cocoons out of silk strands and a few leaves, partially exposing the chrysalis. A few Skipper butterfly larvae also make crude cocoons in which they pupate, exposing the pupa a bit. The Parnassius butterfly larvae make a flimsy cocoon for pupation and they pupate near the ground surface between debris.
Coloration of the wings
Most butterflies have bright colors on their wings. Nocturnal moths on the other hand are usually plain brown, gray, white or black and often with obscuring patterns of zigzags or swirls which help camouflage them as they rest during the day. However many day-flying moths are brightly-colored, particularly if they are toxic. A few butterflies are also plain-colored, like the Cabbage White butterfly.
Differences in body structure
Moths need to conserve heat during the cooler nights so they tend to have stout and hairy bodies. Moths also have larger scales on their wings which makes them look more dense and fluffy.
On the other hand, butterflies are able to absorb solar radiation. So they have slender and smoother abdomens. Butterfly scales are finer than moth scales.
Time of activity
Most moths are nocturnal or crepuscular while most butterflies are diurnal. Exceptions to this rule include the diurnal Gypsy moth and the spectacular “Uraniidae” or Sunset moths.
Moths usually rest with their wings spread out to their sides. Butterflies frequently fold their wings above their backs when they are perched although they will occasionally “bask” with their wings spread for short periods. However some butterflies, like the skippers, may hold their wings either flat, or folded, or even in-between (the so-called “jet plane” position) when perched. Most moths also occasionally fold their wings above their backs when they are in a certain spot (like when there is no room to fully spread their wings). A sometimes confusing family can be the “Geometridae” (such as the Winter moth) because the adults often rest with their wings folded vertically. These moths have thin bodies and large wings like many butterflies but may be distinguished easily by structural differences in their antennae (e.g. bipectinate).
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