Butterflies are such beautiful and unique creatures that is not a wonder why they have been considered symbols of transformation, change, rebirth and spiritual growth for thousands of years (as far back as Egyptians) by so many cultures around the globe.
Scientific research continues to study some of the most amazing and miraculous characteristics of butterflies. For example: The butterfly is the only living being capable of changing its genetic structure entirely during the process of transformation or metamorphosis. The caterpillar’s DNA is totally different from the butterfly’s during which it changes from a leaf- eating caterpillar to a nectar-sipping butterfly.
As science continues to learn more about these incredible creatures, they find more possible applications for innovations in technology as we will discuss further on.
First let’s review some of the most remarkable facts about butterflies that make them so unique.
The word butterfly was first used in England to describe a butter colored insect, the brimstone butterfly, as its reminded people of the color of butter. Eventually, it went from “butter colored fly” to the shorter version “butterfly”.
The scientific name is Lepidoptera, which means “scaly wings”. Lepido comes from the Greek root “lepid” or scale and “ptera or pteron” from the Greek root “wing or winged creature”. This name includes 180,000 species of both butterflies and moths that have evolved over millions of years. This name describes the butterflies wings and bodies which are covered with tiny scales, this is by the way another exclusive characteristic of butterflies (and moths) since they are the only insects that actually have scales!
Their scales form bright patterns, sometimes with hidden ultraviolet patterns to attract mates. The bright colors can act as a deterrent to predators, otherwise the patterns of the scales are designed to blend into the background or camouflage to escape predators as well.
The butterfly wings are actually transparent! Yes, despite being the most amazing colorful insects, their wings are transparent. They are formed by layers of “chitin” the protein that makes up the exoskeleton of insects. The layers are so thin that you can see right through them. The transparent chitin is covered by thousands of tiny scales like fine dust which reflect the light in different colors. When the butterfly ages, the scales fall off leaving spots of transparency in their wings.
The large eyes of the butterfly are called compound eyes because they are formed by many small parts. Their small body is made of three parts: the head, the thorax and the abdomen. They have two antennae on top of their heads, which they use to feel, smell and to hear. A butterfly’s mouth is a long tube, through which it sucks the sweet nectar from flowers. When the butterfly does not want to eat, it rolls the tube up.
They have 3 pairs of legs and their feet have little claws to stand on the flowers. Some types of butterflies only use 4 of their legs, and carry the 2 front legs against their body like the peacock butterfly (photo below).
Some butterflies can fly even faster than 50 km/h, others only fly about 10 km/h. During fall migration Monarch butterflies have been seen flying by tall buildings such as the Empire State Building hundreds of meters high and if they are picked up by strong winds they can be moved 100’s of km, probably at altitudes of thousands of meters.
The monarch butterfly is known to use the angle of sunlight as a navigational guide on its annual fall migration from across North America to Mexico. How it processes the information remains a mystery!
Now scientists have used a flight simulator and peeked inside the butterfly brain to learn that their light-detecting sensors are hard-wired to their circadian clocks, allowing the creatures to compensate for the time of day.
Monarchs are very adept at sensing ultraviolet light, a wavelength of sunlight that is invisible to the human eye. They can can detect the sun’s angle even on a cloudy day, allowing them to always head South.
Butterflies can only feed or fly when their bodies are warmed to at least 30° C . They are often seen basking with their wings open wide, as they gain heat. They adjust the area exposed to the sun by overlapping their wings which act as mini solar panels, or angling them towards the sunshine. The veins located in the wings then carry the heat to the body.
Their color helps the butterfly with their temperature control; dark colors absorb more heat, than light colors and some butterflies such as the Blues have a shiny underside to their wing, which help them reflect heat.
Butterflies live on an all-liquid diet, usually nectar. Their mouth parts are modified to enable them to drink, but they can’t chew solids. A proboscis functions as a drinking straw which stays curled up under the butterfly’s chin until it finds nectar or other liquid nutrition. It then unfurls the long, tubular structure and sips up a meal.
A butterfly cannot live on sugar alone; it also needs minerals. To supplement its diet of nectar, a butterfly will occasionally sip from mud puddles, which are rich in minerals and salts. This behavior, called puddling, occurs more often in males which incorporate the minerals into their sperm. These nutrients are then transferred to the female during mating, and help improve the viability of her eggs.
Butterflies drinking from turtles and crocodiles’ tears below:
A newly emerged butterfly can’t fly. While inside the chrysalis, it waits to emerge with its wings collapsed around its body. When it finally breaks free of the pupal case, it greets the world with tiny, shriveled wings.
The butterfly must immediately pump the body fluid through its wings veins to be able to expand them. Once its wings reach full-size, the butterfly must rest for a few hours to allow its body to dry and harden before it can take its first flight.
Butterflies are nearsighted, but they can see and discriminate a lot of colors. Their eyesight is quite good at about 10 to 12 feet, then it becomes blurry. They rely on their eyesight for vital tasks, like finding mates of the same species, and finding flowers on which to feed.
However, in addition to the colors that we see, they can see a range of ultraviolet colors which are invisible to the human eyes. The butterflies themselves may have ultraviolet colors and markings to help them identify one another and locate potential mates.
Flowers also display ultraviolet markings that act as traffic signals to incoming pollinators like butterflies – “pollinate me!”
Their life span as an adult butterfly is about 2-4 weeks. During which time, it focuses all its energy on two tasks – eating and mating. Some of the smallest butterflies may only survive a few days. Butterflies that overwinter as adults, like monarchs and mourning cloaks (photo below), can live as long as 9 months or a year.
Butterflies employ all kinds of tricks to keep from being eaten by predators.
Some butterflies fold their wings to blend in to the background, using camouflage to render themselves all but invisible to predators. Others try the opposite strategy, wearing vibrant colors and patterns that boldly announce their presence.
Bright colored insects often pack a toxic punch if eaten, so predators learn to avoid them.Some butterflies aren’t toxic at all, but pattern themselves after other species known for their toxicity. By mimicking their foul-tasting cousins, they repel predators.
They benefit the plant world by pollinating or carrying pollen from plant to plant, helping fruits, vegetables, and flowers to produce new seeds.
From the animal point of view, butterflies are near the bottom of the food chain and provide food (especially in their caterpillar stage) for birds, and other predators such as lizards, amphibians, dragonflies and spiders.
Pheromones are commonly involved in mating rituals among species, especially moths, but they are also an important aspect of other forms of communication. Usually, the pheromones are produced by either the male or the female and detected by members of the opposite sex with their antennae. In many species, a gland under the abdomen in the female produces the pheromones. Communication can also occur through stridulation, or producing sounds by rubbing various parts of the body together.
Moths are known to engage in acoustic forms of communication, most often during courtship, attracting mates using sound or vibration. Like most other insects, moths pick up these sounds using tympanic membranes in their abdomens. An example is that of the polka dot wasp moth (Syntomeida epilais, photo below), which produces sounds with a frequency above that normally detectable by humans (about 20 kHz). These sounds also function as tactile communication, or communication through touch, as they stridulate, or vibrate like leaves and stems.
Most moths lack bright colors, as many species use coloration as camouflage, however, butterflies engage in visual communication.
Female cabbage butterflies (photo below), for example, use ultraviolet light to communicate, with scales colored in this range on the dorsal wing surface. When they fly, each down stroke of the wing creates a brief flash of ultraviolet light which the males apparently recognize. These flashes from the wings can attract several males that engage in aerial courtship displays.
Butterfly-Inspired Design Enables Low-Cost Thermal Imaging. A team of scientists at GE Global Research, the technology development arm for the General Electric Company announced new bio-inspired nano-structured systems that could outperform thermal imaging devices available today, developed through their studies of Morpho butterfly wings.
GE scientists are exploring many potential thermal imaging and sensing applications such as medical diagnostics, surveillance, nondestructive inspection and others. Some examples include:
Thermal imaging for advanced medical diagnosis—to better visualize inflammation in the body and understand changes in a patient’s health earlier
Advanced thermal vision—to see things at night and during the day in much greater detail than what is possible today.
Fire thermal imaging— to enhance firefighter safety in operational situations
Thermal security surveillance and thermal cauterization of wound infections—to facilitate early diagnosis
The iridescence of Morpho butterflies has inspired to see the potential to develop the next generation of thermal imaging sensors. Dr. Radislav Potyrailo, principal scientist at GE Global Research who leads GE’s bio-inspired photonics programs stated: “This new class of thermal imaging sensors promises significant improvements over existing detectors in their image quality, speed, sensitivity, size, power requirements and cost.”
Dr. Potyrailo added, “GE’s bio-inspired design also promises exciting new thermal imaging applications such as in advanced medical diagnostics to detect changes in a person’s health or in thermal vision goggles for the military to allow soldiers to see things during the day and at night with much greater specificity and detail.”
Pictures of moths:
GE GLOBAL RESEARCH. 2016. Butterfly-Inspired Design Enables Low-Cost Thermal Imaging. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.geglobalresearch.com/innovation/butterfly-inspired-design-enables-low-cost-thermal-imaging. [Accessed 16 August 2016].
ABOUT EDUCATION. 2016. 10 Fascinating Facts About Butterflies. [ONLINE] Available at: http://insects.about.com/od/butterfliesmoths/a/10-facts-butterflies.htm. [Accessed 16 August 2016].
One kind resources. 2010. Butterfly. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.onekind.org/education/animals_a_z/butterfly/. [Accessed 17 August 2016].