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The Six Butterfly Families

Learn the Six Major Butterfly Groups

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Even people who dislike bugs can warm up to butterflies. Sometimes called flying flowers, butterflies come in all colors of the rainbow. Identifying butterflies begins with learning the six butterfly families.

The first five families – swallowtails, brush-foots, whites and sulphurs, gossamer-wings, and metalmarks – are called the true butterflies. The last group, the skippers, are sometimes considered separately.

1. Swallowtails (Family Papilionidae)

Photo: © Debbie Hadley, WILD Jersey

When someone asks me how to learn to recognize butterflies, I always recommend starting with the swallowtails. You're probably already familiar with some of the more common swallowtails, like the Black Swallowtail or perhaps one of the Tiger Swallowtails.

The common name "swallowtail" refers to the tail-like appendages on the hindwings of many, but not all, species in this family. Should you see a medium to large butterfly with these tails on its wings, you are looking at a swallowtail of some kind.

Swallowtails also boast wing colors and patterns that make species identification fairly easy. Though about 600 Papilionidae species live worldwide, less than 40 inhabit North America.

2. Brush-footed Butterflies (Family Nymphalidae)

Photo: © Debbie Hadley, WILD Jersey

The brush-footed butterflies comprise the largest family of butterflies, with some 6,000 species around the world. Just over 200 Nymphalidae members occur in North America.

Many members of this family appear to have just two pairs of legs. Look closer, however, and you will see the first pair is reduced. Brush-foots use these small legs to taste their food.

Most common butterflies belong to this group: Monarchs and other milkweed butterflies, crescents, checkerspots, peacocks, commas, longwings, admirals, emperors, satyrs morphos, and others.

3. Whites and Sulphurs (Family Pieridae)

Photo: © Debbie Hadley, WILD Jersey

Some of the pale whites and sulphurs visit backyard flowers, and will be familiar. Most Pieridae members have white or yellow wings of small to medium size, with markings in black or orange. Whites and sulphurs have three pairs of walking legs, unlike the brush-foots with their shortened front legs.

Worldwide, whites and sulphurs are abundant, with as many as 1,100 species described. In North America, the family checklist includes about 75 species.

Most Pieridae butterflies occur in limited ranges, where legumes or cruciferous plants grow. The cabbage white is much more widespread, and probably the most familiar member of the group.

4. Gossamer-winged Butterflies (Family Lycaenidae)

Photo: Flickr user Benimoto

Butterfly identification gets trickier with the family Lycaenidae, the hairstreaks, blues, and coppers. Most are quite small, and in my experience, quick.

The name "gossamer-winged" refers to the sheer appearance of the wings, which are often streaked with bright colors. Look for tiny butterflies that flash in the sun, and you'll find members of the family Lycaenidae.

Hairstreaks live mainly in the tropics, while blues and coppers can be found most often throughout the temperate zones.

5. Metalmarks (Family Riodinidae)

Photo: Flickr user NoiseCollusion

Metalmarks are small to medium in size, and live primarily in the tropics. Only a few dozen of the 1,400 species in this family inhabit North America. As you might expect, metalmarks get their name from the metallic-looking spots that often adorn their wings.

6. Skippers (Family Hesperiidae)

Photo: © Debbie Hadley, WILD Jersey

As a group, skippers are easy to recognize. Skippers have thicker thoraxes than most butterflies, and their small wings may seem disproportionate to their bodies. Unlike the "clubbed" antennae of butterflies, those of skippers end in a hook.

The name "skippers" describes their movement, a quick, skipping flight from flower to flower. Skippers tend to be drab. Most are brown or gray, with white or orange markings.

Worldwide, over 3,500 skippers exist. In North America, about 275 species have been described, with the bulk of them living in Texas and Arizona.

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