While many insects have wings, the rich color of butterfly wings sets them apart from all others. The scales in their wings help give them this color. Moths also have scaled wings, but their colors don’t compare to butterflies.
Butterflies are found worldwide. They live on every continent, except Antarctica, and in many diverse environments (hot or cold, dry or moist, sea level or high mountains). They are most numerous in the tropics, however, especially rainforests.
In appearance, butterflies are incredibly diverse. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and their colors span the rainbow. The smallest butterfly is the Sinai baton blue (Pseudophilotes sinaicus). Its wingspan is 0.25 inches (6.25 mm), which is smaller than the size of a dime. The largest butterfly is the female Queen Alexandra birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae). Its wingspan reaches 12.5 inches (31.8 cm).
Butterflies’ wings are covered with tiny scales that create their colors and patterns. Under a microscope, the tiny scales resemble roofing tiles that overlap in different patterns.
Wing colors originate from two sources—pigmentation (color in the scale itself) or iridescence (light from the sun that changes color as it bends within the scales). Earth tones (brown, orange, yellow, white, and black) come from pigments. Iridescent colors (blue, green, copper, silver, and gold) arise from special scales that bend light into different colors. Because the scales act like a prism and separate light into different wavelengths, some butterflies actually appear to change color during flight.
Although they look delicate, a butterfly’s wings are stronger than they appear. Made from thin layers of chitin (a common material found in fungi and insects), the wings are strong enough to lift butterflies off the ground, light enough to minimize drag, and flexible enough for graceful flight. Strengthened by a system of veins, butterflies can control their flight to make sudden landings or fly up to 30 mph (48 km/h).1 If a hungry predator takes a bite out of its wing, the butterfly can often survive and fly, despite the wound.
Built for Survival
Butterflies are a popular meal and must avoid a host of predators, especially birds. However, God didn’t leave them helpless—He gave them a variety of defense mechanisms to protect them. Many butterflies are camouflaged, for example. Species such as the comma (Polygonia c-album) resemble dead leaves. Other species, such as the owl butterfly (Caligo memnon), have a false “eye” pattern on their wings that, when suddenly flashed, startles predators. The clearwing butterfly (Dulcedo polita) is virtually transparent—its wings are covered with very few scales, making its wings almost invisible during flight.
Some brightly colored butterflies, such as the Goliath birdwing (Ornithoptera goliath), are poisonous. They become toxic from the plants they eat during the caterpillar stage. Bright colors serve as a warning that the butterfly is toxic. When a predator eats a poisonous butterfly, it becomes sick and quickly associates those bright colors with an unpleasant experience not to be repeated. Certain others look virtually identical to poisonous butterflies, a defense known as mimicry. The Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) resembles the poisonous monarch (Danaus plexippus) and is usually left alone by predators.
When God first created butterflies, they reflected God’s beauty and glory. Even in today’s sin-cursed world, they constantly remind us of His beauty. Like flowers in flight, they manifest the artwork of God across the globe. When people ponder the beauty in nature, it is no surprise that butterflies so often come to mind.
Did You Know?
- No two butterflies look exactly the same.
- Butterflies are covered with scales, both on their wings and on their bodies.
- Butterflies belong to the order Lepidoptera, from the Greek lepis meaning “scale,” and pteron, meaning “wing.”
- The most obvious way to identify a butterfly is by its body shape and wing pattern. But you can also look at its flight pattern, perching style, and eye color.
- Butterflies are intimately linked with flowers because they need the nectar’s high energy to sustain flight.
- Butterflies have good eyes to find their way, but the males also produce scents (called pheromones) that attract mates over long distances.
- Butterflies that live in the cold Arctic fly close to the ground to avoid the strong, cold winds.
FAMILY: Seven families
GENUS/SPECIES: Around 18,000
SIZE: Wingspan measures 0.25–12.5 inches (0.63–31.8 cm).
DIET: Caterpillars eat plants while adults feed on nectar.
Jim Brock and Ken Kaufman, Field Guide to Butterflies of North America (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003).
Phil Schappert, A World for Butterflies: Their Lives, Behavior and Future (New York: Firefly Books, 2005).