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Life Cycle of a Butterfly

Below is a life-cycle "tree" for the butterfly. Position the stage you are interested in in the middle of your screen, then Mouseover the image to view enlargements and information describing it.

Life cycle of the butterfly

The adult stage:
Adult butterflies have a drinking tube, called proboscis and drink nectar or the sap of fermenting fruit such as the juices of rotten bananas. They live between 4 days up to several weeks depending on the species.
Their purpose is reproduction.

The egg stage:
Eggs are laid on the host plant, this is the plant where the caterpillar feeds.

The caterpillar stage:
Caterpillars have huge jaws needed for chewing plant food. This is the growing and feeding stage of the butterfly. Caterpillars are an essential food source for many birds. This is why caterpillars have adopted a large variety of protective devices in order to survive. Many tropical species of butterfly feed on plants with poisonous contents. They are able to absorb these products and become distastful when eaten by birds. They advertise their distastefulness with bright colors. A language of colors: don't eat me I taste bad!

The chrysalis stage:
Metamorphosis takes place in the chrysalis stage, the caterpillar transforms into the adult stage butterfly. Chrysalises are normally well camouflaged.

Interesting Facts:

There are world wide about 170'000 species within the lepidoptera family, which means "scaly wings" and includes butterflies and moths.

Defense tactics:

Camouflage: the butterfly in any stage will try to merge into the background by adapting the colour and movement of his surrounding. Examples are many chrysalises and butterflies like the leafwings. Signal colours are a language in the insect world: the butterfly is brightly coloured and stands out from his surrounding.

Short life but long history.

It seems strange to think of graceful moths flying about giant dinosaurs, but from fossils we can tell, that the first primitive moths lived about 140 million years ago. Butterflies evolved later than moths, the oldest fossils discovered so far being about 40 million years old. By the time the first people appeared, about 5 million years ago, butterflies and moths were like those we see today.

Butterfly or moth?

Butterflies and moths make up a large order of insects known scientifically as Lepidoptera (=scaly wings). The order is divided into families of butterflies and moths, containing about 150'000 known species. The division of Lepidoptera into butterflies and moths is an artificial one, based on a number of observable differences. For example, most butterflies fly by day and most moths fly by night; most butterflies hold their wings upright over their backs, while most moths rest with their wings flat; butterfly antenna are knobbed at the tip but moth antenna are either feather-like or plain. (Eyewitness Guides, Butterfly and Moth by Paul Whalley; 1988 Dorling Kindersley Ltd., London)

Many butterfly species are endangered, why?

A far greater threat to butterflies and moths than collectors or disease has been the increasing destruction of their habitats. Throughout the world important habitats are being lost to new farmlands and towns. Another reason for their disappearance is that their food plants are considered a pest. For example the New Zealand Yellow and Red Admiral caterpillars feed on the stinging nettle. This plant is considered a pest and destroyed widespread. Many harmless insects are also killed by herbicides and insecticides.