Butterflies are insects in the macrolepidopteran clade Rhopalocera from the order Lepidoptera, which also includes moths. Adult butterflies have large, often brightly coloured wings, and conspicuous, fluttering flight. The group comprises the large superfamily Papilionoidea, which contains at least one former group, the skippers (formerly the superfamily “Hesperioidea”) and the most recent analyses suggest it also contains the moth-butterflies (formerly the superfamily “Hedyloidea”). Butterfly fossils date to the Paleocene, which was about 56 million years ago.
Butterflies have the typical four-stage insect life cycle. Winged adults lay eggs on the food plant on which their larvae, known as caterpillars, will feed. The caterpillars grow, sometimes very rapidly, and when fully developed, pupate in a chrysalis. When metamorphosis is complete, the pupal skin splits, the adult insect climbs out, and after its wings have expanded and dried, it flies off. Some butterflies, especially in the tropics, have several generations in a year, while others have a single generation, and a few in cold locations may take several years to pass through their entire life cycle.
Butterflies are often polymorphic, and many species make use of camouflage, mimicry and aposematism to evade their predators. Some, like the monarch and the painted lady, migrate over long distances. Many butterflies are attacked by parasites or parasitoids, including wasps, protozoans, flies, and other invertebrates, or are preyed upon by other organisms. Some species are pests because in their larval stages they can damage domestic crops or trees; other species are agents of pollination of some plants. Larvae of a few butterflies (e.g., harvesters) eat harmful insects, and a few are predators of ants, while others live as mutualists in association with ants. Culturally, butterflies are a popular motif in the visual and literary arts.
Butterflies feed primarily on nectar from flowers. Some also derive nourishment from pollen, tree sap, rotting fruit, dung, decaying flesh, and dissolved minerals in wet sand or dirt. Butterflies are important as pollinators for some species of plants. In general, they do not carry as much pollen load as bees, but they are capable of moving pollen over greater distances. Flower constancy has been observed for at least one species of butterfly.
Adult butterflies consume only liquids, ingested through the proboscis. They sip water from damp patches for hydration and feed on nectar from flowers, from which they obtain sugars for energy, and sodium and other minerals vital for reproduction. Several species of butterflies need more sodium than that provided by nectar and are attracted by sodium in salt; they sometimes land on people, attracted by the salt in human sweat. Some butterflies also visit dung, rotting fruit or carcasses to obtain minerals and nutrients. In many species, this mud-puddling behaviour is restricted to the males, and studies have suggested that the nutrients collected may be provided as a nuptial gift, along with the spermatophore, during mating.
In hilltopping, males of some species seek hilltops and ridge tops, which they patrol in search for females. Since it usually occurs in species with low population density, it is assumed these landscape points are used as meeting places to find mates.
Butterflies use their antennae to sense the air for wind and scents. The antennae come in various shapes and colours; the hesperiids have a pointed angle or hook to the antennae, while most other families show knobbed antennae. The antennae are richly covered with sensory organs known as sensillae. A butterfly’s sense of taste is coordinated by chemoreceptors on the tarsi, or feet, which work only on contact, and are used to determine whether an egg-laying insect’s offspring will be able to feed on a leaf before eggs are laid on it. Many butterflies use chemical signals, pheromones; some have specialized scent scales (androconia) or other structures (coremata or “hair pencils” in the Danaidae). Vision is well developed in butterflies and most species are sensitive to the ultraviolet spectrum. Many species show sexual dimorphism in the patterns of UV reflective patches. Colour vision may be widespread but has been demonstrated in only a few species. Some butterflies have organs of hearing and some species make stridulatory and clicking sounds.
Many species of butterfly maintain territories and actively chase other species or individuals that may stray into them. Some species will bask or perch on chosen perches. The flight styles of butterflies are often characteristic and some species have courtship flight displays. Butterflies can only fly when their temperature is above 27 °C (81 °F); when it is cool, they can position themselves to expose the underside of the wings to the sunlight to heat themselves up. If their body temperature reaches 40 °C (104 °F), they can orientate themselves with the folded wings edgewise to the sun. Basking is an activity which is more common in the cooler hours of the morning. Some species have evolved dark wingbases to help in gathering more heat and this is especially evident in alpine forms.
As in many other insects, the lift generated by butterflies is more than can be accounted for by steady-state, non-transitory aerodynamics. Studies using Vanessa atalanta in a wind tunnel show that they use a wide variety of aerodynamic mechanisms to generate force. These include wake capture, vortices at the wing edge, rotational mechanisms and the Weis-Fogh ‘clap-and-fling‘ mechanism. Butterflies are able to change from one mode to another rapidly.
Butterflies protect themselves from predators by a variety of means.
Chemical defences are widespread and are mostly based on chemicals of plant origin. In many cases the plants themselves evolved these toxic substances as protection against herbivores. Butterflies have evolved mechanisms to sequester these plant toxins and use them instead in their own defense. These defence mechanisms are effective only if they are well advertised; this has led to the evolution of bright colours in unpalatable butterflies (aposematism). This signal is commonly mimicked by other butterflies, usually only females. A Batesian mimic imitates another species to enjoy the protection of that species’ aposematism. The common Mormon of India has female morphs which imitate the unpalatable red-bodied swallowtails, the common rose and the crimson rose. Müllerian mimicry occurs when aposematic species evolve to resemble each other, presumably to reduce predator sampling rates; Heliconius butterflies from the Americas are a good example.
Camouflage is found in many butterflies. Some like the oakleaf butterfly and autumn leaf are remarkable imitations of leaves. As caterpillars, many defend themselves by freezing and appearing like sticks or branches. Others have deimatic papilionid , such as rearing up and waving their front ends which are marked with eyespots as if they were snakes. Some papilionid caterpillars such as the giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) resemble bird droppings so as to be passed over by predators. Some caterpillars have hairs and bristly structures that provide protection while others are gregarious and form dense aggregations. Some species are myrmecophiles, forming mutualistic associations with ants and gaining their protection. Behavioural defences include perching and angling the wings to reduce shadow and avoid being conspicuous. Some female Nymphalid butterflies guard their eggs from parasitoidal wasps.
The Lycaenidae have a false head consisting of eyespots and small tails (false antennae) to deflect attack from the more vital head region. These may also cause ambush predators such as spiders to approach from the wrong end, enabling the butterflies to detect attacks promptly. Many butterflies have eyespots on the wings; these too may deflect attacks, or may serve to attract mates.
Auditory defenses can also be used, which in the case of the Grizzled skipper refers to vibrations generated by the butterfly upon expanding its wings in an attempt to communicate with ant predators.
Many tropical butterflies have seasonal forms for dry and wet seasons. These are switched by the hormone ecdysone. The dry-season forms are usually more cryptic, perhaps offering better camouflage when vegetation is scarce. Dark colours in wet-season forms may help to absorb solar radiation.
Butterflies without defences such as toxins or mimicry protect themselves through a flight that is more bumpy and unpredictable than in other species. It is assumed this behavior makes it more difficult for predators to catch them, and is caused by the turbulence created by the small whirlpools formed by the wings during flight.