Of all the insect groups, we are probably most familiar with the butterflies and moths. We see moths fluttering around our porch lights, and watch butterflies visiting flowers in our gardens.
However, there is no real taxonomic difference between butterflies and moths, and both are classified in the order Lepidoptera. This order contains over 100 families of insects worldwide, some of which are moths and some of which are butterflies. However, there are some differences in physical and behavioural characteristics that are easy to learn and recognize.
Below is a concise list of the most obvious differences, but as with most rules there are exceptions.
The physical differences between moths and butterflies
The Rhopalocera - 'clubbed horn', the butterflies, and
The Heterocera - 'varied horn', the moths.
There are, however, exceptions to this rule and a few moth families, notably Castniidae, Uraniidae, Apogonidae, and Sematuridae have clubbed antennae. Some butterflies, like Pseudopodia paradoxa from the forests of central Africa, lack the club ends. The Hesperiidae often have an angle to the tip of the antenna.
Many moths have a frenulum which is a filament arising from the hindwing and coupling (matching up) with barbs on the forewing. The frenulum can be observed only when a specimen is in hand. Some moths have a lobe on the forewing called a jugum that helps in coupling with the hindwing. Butterflies however lack these structures.
There are many exceptions to this rule, however. For example, the Hawk moths form an exposed chrysalis which is underground. Gypsy moths sometimes form butterfly-style pupae, hanging on twigs or tree bark, although usually they create flimsy cocoons out of silk strands and a few leaves, partially exposing the chrysalis. A few Skipper butterfly larvae also make crude cocoons in which they pupate, exposing the pupa a bit. The Parnassius butterfly larvae make a flimsy cocoon for pupation and they pupate near the ground surface between debris.
Colouration of the wings
Structure of the body
Moths tend to have stout and hairy or furry-looking bodies, while butterflies have slender and smoother abdomens. Moths have larger scales on their wings which makes them look more dense and fluffy. Butterflies on the other hand possess fine scales. This difference is possibly due to the need for moths to conserve heat during the cooler nights whereas butterflies are able to absorb solar radiation.
The behavioral differences between moths and butterflies
Moths usually rest with their wings spread out to their sides. Butterflies frequently fold their wings above their backs when they are perched although they will occasionally 'bask' with their wings spread for short periods. However, some butterflies, like the skippers, may hold their wings either flat, or folded, or even in-between in the so-called 'jet plane' position.
Most moths also occasionally fold their wings above their backs, but usually when they are in a position where there is no room to fully spread their wings.
A sometimes confusing family can be the "Geometridae" (such as the Winter moth) because the adults often rest with their wings folded vertically. These moths have thin bodies and large wings like many butterflies but may be distinguished easily by structural differences in their antennae.
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