An Introduction to the Lepidoptera Family of Butterflies and Moths

When you look at a butterfly and seen the vibrant colors of its wings, it may be hard to believe that the wings are actually made up of many thousands of tiny scales. But this is actually where they get their scientific name, lepidoptera, which includes both moths and butterflies, literally meaning scaly wings.

There are about 170,000 different species of lepidoptera, but the majority of these species are different types of moths. Amazingly, even though they appear very delicate, moths and butterflies can actually live and adapt to almost any climate.

The Importance of Flowers to Butterflies

Butterflies are not able to eat solids and so typically rely on the nectar of flowers for their nutrition. However, tree sap and even the fluid from dung provide sustenance for some species of butterflies. The butterfly actually has an important relationship with flowers, because, like bees, they help to spread pollen to each flower that they visit.

Both moths and butterflies feed using a long tube called a proboscis, which coils up beneath their head when not being used, yet can be extended to suck nutrients from deep within the flower. In many ways, the proboscis is like a tongue, whose length varies depending on the specie.

Ancient Moths

Fossils of moths that are believed to be between 100 and 150 million years old have been discovered, but the oldest known butterfly fossils are much younger, dating back only 40 million years. Their evolution and development has been closely tied to the development of the flowering plants they feed on. It is believed that moths date back to around 250 million years, although there have been no transitional fossils found yet to support this claim.

Is it a Butterfly or a Moth?

Even though they are in the same family, there are several factors that set butterflies apart from moths.

Butterflies are often easy to identify due to their vibrant colors and patterns, but this is not something that is unique to butterflies, as moths can also be very colorful. Butterflies feature antennas with a thick tip, commonly called a clubbed antenna, and can also be identified by the way their wings are held together when they are at rest. Also, the hindwing has a larger base, which provides stability to the forewing when in flight.

Moths, on the other hand, can vary greatly and often have patterns and colors that are just as unique as those of a butterfly's. The antennas of a moth are typically feathered and the hindwing is has little hooks and bristles, which attach to the forewing. When at rest, the wings of the moth fold down onto its back.

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