FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Butterflies LIVE! FAQs
How many different species are featured in the butterfly exhibit?
The number of species featured in the North Wing will change over the course of the summer. The current species list features 24 different species.
Where do the butterflies featured in the exhibit come from?
All but two species featured on the species list come from Costa Rica. Costa Rica is a small country in Central America located between Nicaragua and Panama, with a population of approximately 4.2 million people (about the size of West Virginia). Costa Rica is a country of great ecological importance possessing some of the most species- rich habitat in the whole world.
The Indian Leaf Butterfly (Kallima inachus) ranges from India to Pakistan and into China and Taiwan. The Monarch (Danaus Plexippus) is a long range migrant that makes an annual trip from Central America and Mexico to North America.
I hear the rainforest is in danger, is this true, and if so why?
Many species found here on the planet earth are habitat specialists. This means that they inhabit a very specific area and if they are taken out of that habitat they usually do not fair well, in many cases they perish. For instance half of the world's plant species are found in only a handful of areas called 'hotspots', 25 to be exact. Of the 15 known species of Heliconius, 13 of them are found in Costa Rican rainforest! In fact many of the most breathtaking habitat specialists are found in the rainforest. Unfortunately these 'hotspots' that used to make up 12% of the surface of the earth now only make up a little over 1%. Most of this habitat loss can be traced back to anthropogenic (human related) factors. Researchers have looked at habitat loss and how it affects many bird species; this research has proven extremely valuable to ecologists and can tell us a little bit about the severity of habitat loss. According to a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fact sheet titled "Important Facts about Habitat Loss and Birds" over 85% of forests have been permanently destroyed or logged within the United States, up to 99% have been clear cut or logged at some point in recent history. Additionally 50% of naturally occurring wetlands in the U.S. have been filled or drained. Just to put the disparity into perspective up to 94% of wetlands in California have been drained or destroyed while in Alaska 90% remain unaltered. Something is clearly wrong with this picture!
There are a lot of odd looking butterflies with elongated wings, what are they?
The species list for the North Wing includes 7 species from the genus Heliconius. Heliconius is a tropical genus (a group of closely related species) native to the tropics, of the 15 species in the genus, 13 are found in Costa Rica. They are easily distinguished by their distinctive wing shape, which looks somewhat elongated. When compared to a large loping Owl Butterfly, a “Long-wing” (as they are called), looks like a hot rod. Accordingly they are very active compared to many other species of butterfly. Increased activity coupled with the bright and colorful markings make for an amazing sight! They are also extremely long lived for butterflies, some individuals live up to 9 months in the wild. The Long-wings are able to extend their life-span by consuming pollen.
General Butterfly FAQs
What are butterflies?
The term “butterfly” refers to a group of insects belonging to the order Lepidoptera which includes both moths and butterflies. Lepidoptera is a mash up of two Greek words lepido or scale and ptera or wing. Like all insects, a butterfly has six legs. A butterfly also has four wings (two fore-wings, two hind-wings), and three body segments -- the head, thorax and abdomen.
How many different kinds of butterflies are there?
It is difficult to say with any certainty exactly how many species of Lepidoptera inhabit the planet Earth; many species still remain undiscovered. However, a current estimate of known species is 170,000. Butterflies represent only ten percent of known Lepidoptera. So long story short, approximately 17,000 species of butterflies are known to exist.
What is the difference between a moth and a butterfly?
There are several characteristics that are easy to observe that distinguish butterflies from moths. Butterflies are diurnal, meaning that they are active during the day, whereas moths are generally only active at night (with a few exceptions). Moths generally perch with their wings open against their perch; butterflies perch with their wings closed revealing, in many cases, their camouflaged under-wing. Moth antennae are generally hairy or furry whereas butterfly antennae are clubbed at the end and without hair.
How long do butterflies live?
The average life-span of a butterfly is only a couple of weeks. Most of the lepidopteran life cycle is spent in the larval stage as a caterpillar. The purpose of the adult stage is mainly to find a mate and lay eggs. With that said there are some species that live at either extreme. The moths of the family Saturniidae, for instance, only live about a week and do not eat the whole time. Butterflies belonging to the genus Heliconius can live for up to nine months in the wild.
What do butterflies eat?
Butterflies do not have jaws to chew food like humans do; instead they have a thin, hollow straw-like tube called a proboscis which is made up of two interconnected pieces. Since butterflies can’t chew their food they have to stay on a liquid diet! Most butterflies drink nectar from brightly colored flowers. In fact butterflies have been drinking nectar from flowers for so long that they’ve developed preferences for and special relationships with specific plants. This diet is nutrient poor; nectar does not proved all essential nutrients. Many tropical butterflies drink the juices of fruit that is found rotting on the ground. Many of these tropical fruit juice drinking butterflies have developed barbed proboscises capable of puncturing the rinds of fruits like oranges. Butterflies also drink water when they’re thirsty; perching at puddles to take a sip. To acquire salts vital to their health and reproduction they will drink from muddy puddles, sip sweat, or take in moisture from animal dung.
How do butterflies hide?
Many people enjoy and appreciate butterflies for their beautifully colored wings. The upperside is usually brightly colored. In many cases if the observer takes the time to look at the underside of a butterfly's wing he would notice something entirely different. The underside of many butterflies wings are patterned in such a way as to blend in with their natural habitat, a sort of camouflage (biologists refer to this as a cryptic pattern). So when the butterfly is in flight and active you can see their bright beautiful colors but when perched suddenly they blend right in!
Butterflies that have brightly colored wings are sending a specific message to predators and that message is something like "if you eat me you'll feel sick". Many butterfly larvae (caterpillars) ingest toxins found in their host plant (the plant they eat). These toxins can either have an unpleasant taste, or they may actually make a predator sick. These toxins stay in the tissues of the butterfly, so when it emerges as an adult it still tastes bad.
Predators quickly learn to stay away from butterflies that have warning patterns (aka aposematic patterns) on their wings. This is such a good survival strategy that many perfectly edible butterflies have developed the same color patterns to fool predators. This behavior is known collectively as mimicry. Butterflies may also have 'eye spots' on their wings. These large, bright spots can sometimes fool predators into thinking that another predator is staring right back at them!
What gives butterfly wings their amazing colors?
Butterfly wings are covered in many tiny scales that overlap like shingles on a roof. Scales come in many different shapes and have been used to classify butterflies in the past. The different colors are either produced by the pigments contained in the caterpillar’s diet or by the structure of the scale itself. Colors like red are created by pigment, whereas iridescence and colors like blues and greens are produced by unique scale shapes that refract light. If you touch a butterfly’s wings you’ll notice that the scales rub off very easily, like a fine powder.
What is a mimic?
Often several butterfly species share a very similar wing pattern. We call different species with similar wing patterns mimics. Sometimes an edible butterfly has the same wing pattern as a foul tasting or toxic butterfly. This type of mimicry is called Batesian Mimicry. Sometimes two or more toxic species have similar wing patterns, this type of mimicry is called Mullerian Mimicry. Since predators learn to stay away from certain warning colors and patterns butterfly mimics are less likely to be eaten.
Why are butterflies important?
Butterflies, bees and many other insects play important roles in pollinating many different plants. Some plants have even developed ways to attract butterflies. Some plants produce clusters of tiny blossoms so that the butterfly can maximize feeding while minimizing effort. Some flowers take advantage of a butterfly’s ability to see in ultraviolet, producing markings that humans cannot see but that butterflies and other pollinators can. This pollination benefit is countered by the destruction waged by caterpillars on their host plants. It’s a love/hate relationship.
Butterflies also play an important role in food webs. Birds, small mammals, reptiles and spiders all eat butterflies! Birds especially like to eat caterpillars. Predation has given rise to all of the spectacular warning patterns on butterfly wings.
Why do biologists use scientific names and why are they so hard to say?
Biologists use a standardized system of classification called taxonomy. This ensures that a scientist in the United States can publish a paper about M. sexta (the tobacco hornworm) and a scientist in Norway will know exactly what organism the scientist in the U.S. is referring to. The modern taxonomic system was developed in the 18th century by Carolus Linnaeus a famous botanist. An organism's scientific name has two parts: the first word represents the genus of the organism and the second word, the species. The origin of these words is usually Greek or Latin. A genus can be thought of as a group of very closely related species. The scientific name of the Monarch Butterfly is Dannaus plexippus, Dannaus is the genus and plexippus is the species.
Can butterflies bite, sting or otherwise hurt me?
It’s hard to picture a disgruntled butterfly that would want to hurt a human. Even if such a thing existed, a butterfly physically cannot bite or sting. Butterfly mouth-parts have, over time, evolved into a long thin, hollow tube made up of two interconnected pieces called a proboscis. Just about the only thing that this proboscis is any good at doing is sipping up fluids and in some rare cases crushing pollen. There is a newly discovered species of moth known to suck blood but even these moths are on the other side of the earth, native to Russia.
Do butterflies carry any diseases?
Butterflies have not been found to spread any human diseases. However, there are many diseases that butterflies can give to each other that have detrimental effects on local populations. Apart from viruses and bacteria butterflies are also susceptible to fly and wasp parasitoids and other parasites. Parasitoid larvae live inside of caterpillars and pupae feeding off of internal tissues eventually killing the butterfly. The risk for butterflies is not limited to natural predators, parasites and parasitoids. The recent interest in butterflies has lead to widespread release of commercially raised butterflies at weddings, funerals and other events. The release of commercially raised butterflies has been shown to have detrimental effects on local butterfly populations.