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Skippers Butterflies and Moths: Lepidoptera

Physical Characteristics

Adults come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Their bodies are long and slender or plump and are either brightly or drably colored. The smallest species are leaf-miner moths with wingspans measuring 0.17 inches (4.5 millimeters). The largest moth is from the American tropics with a wingspan of up to 11.02 inches (280 millimeters). The smallest known butterfly species are Micropsyche ariana from Afghanistan and the Western pygmy blue of the United States. Both have wingspans of 0.39 to 0.75 inches (10 to 19 millimeters). The largest butterfly is the Queen Alexandra's birdwing of New Guinea. Females are larger than males and have wingspans measuring up to just over 7 inches (129 millimeters).

Most adults have a long coiled tubelike tongue called the proboscis (pruh-BAH-suhs). The proboscis is used for sucking up fluids. It is sometimes longer than the body and is coiled up and stored under the head when not in use. In some moths the proboscis is strong enough to pierce the skin of fruit. Some moths do not have a proboscis, and a few species have jaws. The mouthparts usually include a pair of fingerlike structures covered with scales called palps. The antennae (an-TEH-nee), or sense organs, of moths are long and threadlike or feathery. Those of butterflies are long, slender, and swollen at the tips. Skippers also have long slender antennae, but the tips are hooked. All adults have a pair of large compound eyes, or eyes with multiple lenses, and some also have a pair of simple eyes, or eyes with one lens.

Nearly all lepidopterans (leh-pe-DOP-teh-runs) have four wings, but a few species, especially the females, are wingless. The wings are usually large when compared to the size of the body and are densely covered with tiny flat hair-like structures called scales. Thousands of scales are arranged on the wings like overlapping shingles on a roof and give lepidopterans their colors and patterns. The wings are similar in size and texture, but the forewing colors of many moths are usually bolder than the hind wings. The wing veins, which can only be seen when the scales are removed, vary in pattern. Smaller moths have only a few veins in each wing. The leading edge of the forewing is reinforced with several veins to give it strength.

The forewings and hind wings work together while the insect is in flight. In ghost moths there is a flap near the base of the forewing that overlaps and connects with the base of the hind wing. In most other moths, the portion of the hind wings closest to the body, called the base, has a cluster of hairs that fits into a special structure on the base of the forewing. Butterflies, nearly all skippers, and a few moths have hind wings with a stiff flap near the base that overlaps the base of the forewing.

The soft, ten-segmented abdomen is covered with scales and lacks any long projections on the tip.

The larvae (LAR-vee) or young, usually known as caterpillars, do not resemble the adults at all. Their bodies are long, soft, and fleshy. The nearly round head is distinct, hard, and has powerful jaws. The antennae are small and not easily seen. Two silk glands are located inside the lower lip. The silk comes out through a single opening on the lip. The six true legs are located on the thorax, or midsection. Each leg is five-segmented and usually tipped with a single claw. The underside of the abdomen has a series of paired false legs called prolegs, which are fleshy structures usually tipped with a series of hooks. These hooks allow caterpillars to grip leaves, twigs, and other objects. The surfaces of their wrinkled bodies are smooth or covered with scales, fleshy bumps, spines, or tufts of hair. These coverings sometimes help to protect the caterpillars from potential predators (PREH-duh-ters), or animals that hunt them for food. The needlelike spines are sometimes hollow, attached to poison glands, and capable of delivering burning stings. The hairs of some species are especially irritating to people if they get into the eyes, nose, or mouth.

The features of the adult are clearly visible in the pupae (PYU-pee), or the life stage between larva and adult. The legs and wings are tightly fastened to the body along their entire lengths. The pupae of moths are usually brownish and smooth. The pupa of a butterfly is called a chrysalis (KRIH-suh-lihs). Chrysalises come in a variety of colors and are sometimes distinctly sculptured. The pupae are sometimes wrapped in a silk cocoon, especially in some moths. The chrysalises of many butterflies are attached to branches and the undersides of leaves. They have a small cluster of hooks located on the very tip of the abdomen that they use to grab a buttonlike pad of silk spun by the caterpillar. Swallowtail butterflies also secure their chrysalises with an additional strand of silk like a belt wrapped around the body. Many moths do not use any silk at all and pupate, or change into pupae, in the ground or under tree bark.

Additional topics

Animal Life ResourceInsects and SpidersSkippers Butterflies and Moths: Lepidoptera - Physical Characteristics, Habitat, Diet, Behavior And Reproduction, Lepidopterans And People, Conservation Status - GEOGRAPHIC RANGE