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What are the differences between day and night butterflies?

Différences entre papillon et papillon de nuit

Moths and butterflies both belong to the order Lepidoptera. They share a similar appearance and undergo the same four-stage life cycle. So why are Lepidoptera divided into two groups: moths and butterflies? What are the distinguishing features?

Although there are several ways to differentiate between a butterfly and a moth, each characteristic has its exceptions. Here are some methods to tell them apart:


Most butterflies have thin, slender antennae that are filamentous and club-shaped at the tip, while moths often have antennae that are comb- or feather-shaped, or filamentous without a clubbed tip. This difference forms the basis of the non-standardized taxonomic divisions within Lepidoptera: the Rhopalocera ("tail horns", the butterflies) and the Heterocera ("varied horns", the moths). For more information on the morphology of Lepidoptera, read our article on their anatomy.

Antennae of Butterfly and Moth

Wing Coupling Mechanisms

Many moths have a frenulum, a filament originating from the hindwing that connects with the barbs of the forewing. The frenulum can only be seen when examining a specimen up close. Butterflies do not have these structures.

The Pupal Stage

During their pupal stage, moths create silk cocoons in which they transform from caterpillars into adult moths. Instead of silk cocoons, most butterflies form pupae with a tough outer skin during their pupal stage.

Wing Coloring

Most butterflies have brightly colored wings. Moths, on the other hand, are typically brown, gray, white, or black and often have obscure zigzag or swirl patterns for camouflage during the day. However, many day-flying moths are brightly colored, especially if they are poisonous. Some butterflies, like the Cabbage White, are also solid in color.

Butterfly and Moth Wings

Body Structure

Moths generally have stout, furry or hairy bodies, while butterflies have slimmer, smoother abdomens. Moths have larger scales on their wings, giving them a denser, fluffier appearance. Butterflies have thinner scales. This difference may be due to moths' need to conserve heat during cooler nights, whereas butterflies rely on absorbing solar radiation.

Behavioral Differences

Most moths are nocturnal or crepuscular, while most butterflies are diurnal. Moths typically rest with their wings spread out to the sides, whereas butterflies usually fold their wings over their backs when perched, though they may occasionally bask with their wings outstretched for short periods.

Species Count

There are approximately 180,000 known species of Lepidoptera. Only 10% are butterflies; the remaining 90% are moths. They represent about 1% of all known organisms. Most moths and butterflies are found in tropical regions, but Lepidoptera exist on every continent except Antarctica.

Origin and Evolution

Moths appeared several million years before butterflies. The first moths appeared during the Jurassic period and coexisted with dinosaurs. The oldest known moth is Archaeolepis mane, with a fossil dating back to the Early Jurassic, around 190 million years ago.

During the Cretaceous, the first flowering plants appeared. Lepidoptera and flowering plants evolved together, forming a mutually beneficial relationship: insects helped plants reproduce by transferring pollen, while plants provided insects with nectar.

The first butterflies appeared about 55 million years ago, 10 million years after the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs. The oldest known butterfly is Prodryas Persephone, with fossils dated to 34 million years ago. Butterflies evolved from moths, with several groups of moths appearing before butterflies. Consequently, some moths are more closely related to butterflies than to other moths.

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