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If You Touch a Butterfly's Wings, Can It Still Fly?

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Butterfly wings are covered in scales, which will rub off when you touch them.

Butterfly wings are covered in scales, which will rub off when you touch them.

Photo: © Flickr user rougenair
Question: If You Touch a Butterfly's Wings, Can It Still Fly?

If you've ever handled a butterfly, you probably noticed the powdery residue left behind on your fingers. A butterfly's wings are covered with scales, which may rub off on your fingers when you touch them. That's the powder you see on your fingers. But will this prevent the butterfly from flying? Will the butterfly die?

Answer:

This is more fiction than fact. The truth is, a butterfly sheds scales throughout its lifetime. Butterflies lose scales just by doing the things butterflies do – nectaring on plants, mating, and flying. If you touch a butterfly gently, it will lose some scales, but rarely enough to stop it from flying.

A butterfly wing is made of a thin membrane webbed with veins. Colorful scales cover the membrane, overlapping like roof shingles. The scales strengthen and stabilize the wings. If a butterfly loses a lot of scales, the underlying membrane may become more prone to tears, and that could affect its ability to fly.

A butterfly cannot regenerate lost scales. On older butterflies, you may notice tiny clear patches on their wings, where scales were shed. If a large section of scales are missing, you can actually see right through the clear membrane of the wing.

Wing tears, on the other hand, will definitely affect the butterfly's ability to fly. You should always try to minimize tears to a butterfly's wing when catching them. Never trap a live butterfly in a small jar or other container, where it may damage its wings by flapping against the hard sides. Always use a proper butterfly net.

When you handle a butterfly, gently close its wings together. Using a light but firm touch, hold all four wings together, and keep your fingers in one place. It's best to hold the wings at a point close to the butterfly's body, to keep it as still as possible.

As long as you are gentle and don't handle a butterfly excessively, it will continue to fly and live when you release it.

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