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Moth vs Butterfly: Basic Physical Differences & 8 Fascinating Facts

Moth and butterfly on white background

Belonging to the same scientific order of Lepidoptera, moths and butterflies are closely related species (or call them cousins). There is so much similar between the two species that sometimes, it becomes impossible to differentiate between the two. They share the same scaly (dusty) and colored wings, both are plant eaters or sip nectar from flowers (pollination) and rotting fruits, they pass the same stages of growth etc. But still there are some basic anatomical and behavioral differences between the two that help in determining their species. Read on to know what makes them dissimilar in spite of being so similar in shape and structure.

Basic Physical Differences Between Moths and Butterflies

1. Antennae

Both, a moth and a butterfly come with a pair of antennae (feelers). Antennae are sensory organs that help in sensing things around. There is an evident change in the shape and structure of their antennae. A butterfly antennae are long and thin looking shafts with clubs at the end. Contrary to that, a moth has got hairy, feathery or sometimes comb-like antennae with no clubs on its ends.

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Note: Moths and butterflies do not have noses. They use their antennae to sniff things around them.

2. Different Mechanism of Wings

Unlike a butterfly, a moth wings come in two pairs (hind wing and forewing). A frenulum (wing coupling device) is located right beside the wing. It helps in joining the forewings with hindwings while flying. It allows the moth to fly as any other bug, with a single pair of wing. While some species of moths have a jugum (lobe) on their forewing that aids in coupling it with hindwing. No such wings mechanism is found in butterfly wings. They simply have a single pair of wings to fly.

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3. Pupae

The protective shield that a moth’s pupa wraps around it during its pupal stage is called cocoon. A pupa produces the silk coverings from its silk gland. While in this stage, a butterfly pupa forms a chrysalis, that is hard, rough and without any silk element.

4. Coloration of the Wings

Difference of colors and patterns separates both well. Butterflies have brighter and vibrantly hued colors and clearer patterns on them. Moth comes in obscure patterns and drab colors, mostly the shades of brown, black and grey. Being nocturnal, moths need to survive in the day time, when they are resting for most of the hours. These dull and drab shades help them in camouflaging in different environments.

5. Body Structure

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Both have a clear difference in their structure and size. Butterflies have larger wings (than moths) and underdeveloped forelegs. Moths have small sized wings and fully developed forelegs attached to their hairier and furrier body. Furthermore, moths have larger scales on their wings that make them look stout and fluffier. Contrary to that, butterflies have slender bodies with delicate scales on their wings. There is a scientific explanation of this difference. Moths spend their time waking up in cooler nights in the wild. To bear that cold, their feathery body provides them heat. Unlike that, butterflies being diurnal, face sun and excessive heat in beautiful insects land. That is why they have delicate wings that help them in absorbing solar radiation.

6. Difference of Eyes

Moths have exceptional vision. Their compound eyes come with hexagonal lens that help them in tracking all the activities in the late hours. Being nocturnal, their eyes do not catch the images (like we do), moths can see the ultraviolet rays around them. Butterflies too have compound eyes, but of a different type (apposition eyes). They have excellent vision with superior resolution and they can distinguish between the bright colors like red, yellow and green.

7. Time of Activity

Both a butterfly and a moth have totally different times of activities. Moths, being nocturnal, work (eat and reproduce) in the dark hours. Opposite to that, butterflies are diurnal and travel from flower to flower in broad day light. But still there are some moths (buck moth, Urania leilus, Castnioidea moths) who are diurnal and some butterflies (northern pearly eye butterfly) that are nocturnal.

8. Resting Posture

Their resting position, while sitting on a flower or twig, tells exactly about their particular specie. Butterflies always sit with their wings folded vertically on their backs. While moths sit with their wings flat, in a tent-like manner, hiding most of their abdominal area.

8 More Fascinating Facts about Butterflies and Moths

There are outnumbered interesting facts about these two amazing creatures. Some of the most intriguing ones are listed below.

  1. Though belonging to the same order ‘Lepidoptera’, moths are found in outnumbered species. About 94% of the species of this order are moths. Butterflies make up only 6% approx.
  2. The rare day-flying moths are toxic in most of the cases. They come in bright hues and appealing patterns. Sometimes it seems impossible (even for an expert) to accept them as moths. Most surprisingly, several daytime species of moths have antennae with club shaped tips. Similarly, there are some butterfly species (Pseudopontia paradoxa) found in the forests of central Africa, who come without any clubs on their antennae. Furthermore, the butterfly species like baron butterfly and cabbage white butterfly have plain and colorless look.
  3. They both go through the same phases of life (egg, larva, pupal stage, adult). A moth’s cocoon is usually found on or under the ground while butterflies’ chrysalises are suspended from some tree. In some species of caterpillars, these cocoons or chrysalises can be toxic. Touching those stinging hair can be alarming for humans. So, next time when you see them, DON’T TOUCH!
  4. Both moth and butterfly have dusty scales on their wings. If you touch these delicate scales, you might dislodge them into a powdery form. This shedding of scales is quite natural in butterflies. If they are dusted off, they can easily be restored by the butterflies. They can fly even without these scales.

  5. (Lycaenidae) or Blues are the smallest butterflies of the world. They have a wingspan of about 1/4 – 1/2 inches. The smallest moths belong to the pygmy moth family (Nepticulidae). It has a wingspan of about 3/32 of an inch.
  6. The largest butterflies of the world are ‘birdswings’. They have a wingspan of about 11 inches. While Atlas moths are the biggest moths in size. They can have a wingspan of about 12 inches.
  7. Butterflies and moths are found in every part of the world except polar regions. No bug belonging to the order of Lepidoptera can survive a freezing temperature.
  8. Butterflies and moths share same quirky mating behaviors. They use their sensory organs to detect the odor molecules or pheromones released by the opposite sex. Males have special clasping organs to keep the females attached with it while copulation. Intrusion of some predator may make the couple fly together, while having sex.

Conclusion

The latest studies and researches on moths and butterflies have blurred most of the physical differences between them. Many of their anatomical and behavioral traits are the same. It would not be wrong, if we call a butterfly, ‘a fancy moth’ or a moth, as ‘a plain butterfly’.

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