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Characteristics of Butterflies and Moths, Order Lepidoptera

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Viewed up close, a butterfly wing reveals its scales.

Viewed up close, a butterfly wing reveals its scales.

Photo: © Flickr user rougenair

The name Lepidoptera means “scale wings.” Take a close look at the wings of these insects and you will see overlapping scales, like shingles on a roof. The order Lepidoptera includes butterflies and moths, and is the second largest group in the insect world.

Description:

The scaly wings of Lepidopteran insects come in two pairs and are often quite colorful. To identify a specific butterfly or moth, you will usually need to look at the colors and unique markings on the wings. Insects in this group have large compound eyes. Above each compound eye is a simple eye called an ocellus. Adult Lepidoptera have mouthparts formed into a sucking tube, or proboscis, which is used to drink nectar. The larvae, commonly called caterpillars, have chewing mouthparts and are herbivorous. Butterflies and moths can be differentiated by looking at the shape of their antennae.

Habitat and Distribution:

Butterflies and moths live in a variety of land habitats on every continent except Antarctica. Their distribution is dependent on their food source. Habitat must provide the appropriate host plants for the caterpillars, and good nectar sources for the adults.

Major Families in the Order:

  • Nymphalidae - brushfooted butterflies
  • Papillionidae – swallowtails
  • Hesperiidae – skippers
  • Saturniidae - giant silk moths
  • Lymantriidae - tussock moths
  • Noctuidae - loopers, owlet moths, and underwings

Species of Interest:

  • Danaus plexippus, the monarch butterfly, is the only butterfly in the world to migrate in two directions.
  • Ornithoptera alexandrae (Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing) is the world’s largest butterfly, with a wingspan of up to 12 inches.
  • Bombyx mori is no longer found in the wild. The Silkworm moth has been bred in captivity for thousands of years.
  • Actias luna, the Luna moth, is one of the most beautiful and colorful moths. It is a common moth in the eastern U.S.

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