Superfamily Papilionoidea - Butterflies and Skippers
Kingdom Animalia (Animals)
Phylum Arthropoda (Arthropods)
Subphylum Hexapoda (Hexapods)
Class Insecta (Insects)
Order Lepidoptera (Butterflies and Moths)
Superfamily Papilionoidea (Butterflies and Skippers)
Other Common Names
Synonyms and other taxonomic changes
superfamily Papilionoidea Latreille, . Based on genus Papilio Linnaeus
BugGuide primarily follows the taxonomy and nomenclature in A Catalogue of the Butterflies of the United States and Canada
by Jonathan Pelham (2012), 2016 update here
. (see this discussion
Explanation of Names
The origin of the word butterfly is uncertain. Modern English butterfly is from Middle English boterflye, thence from Old English buttorfleoge, a compound word, corresponding to butter + fly. There are at least three theories as to the connection of butterfly to butter:
1-Butter refers to the color of yellow species, i.e., the Sulfurs
, in particular, European species such as the Common Brimstone
). Under this scheme, the meaning of the compound buttorfleoge
is "yellow flier" (Partridge, 1958). It is not clear why the sulfur family was chosen to represent, linguistically, the group.
2-Butterflies are attracted to milk and butter churns. (Alternatively, there were related folk tales that butterflies were spirits that stole cream.) The German word for butterfly, schmetterling
has, perhaps, similar connotations (Butterfly etymology
3-A Dutch word for butterfly is (or was) boterschijte
, allegedly referring to the color of its excrement, (Oxford English Dictionary
?, quoted in various Internet sources
). This is, perhaps, a linguistic connection, but it is not clear how! (Dutch and English are closely related languages.) This derivation is rather implausible, since butterflies do not excrete solid waste, but the linguistic parallel is suggestive.
For a good summary, see the discussion
from A World for Butterflies
and also Scott (2)
Papilionoidea is from Latin papilio/papilionis
, a butterfly or moth. Papilio
is a prominent genus of swallowtail butterflies.
13,700 spp. in the world
North America has over 700 species of butterflies, according to Wikipedia
The number of recognized included families varies from author to author, but is typically about 6 or 7:
Papilionidae - Swallowtails, Birdwings & Apollos
Hedylidae - American Moth Butterflies
Hesperiidae - Skippers
Pieridae - Whites & Sulphurs
Lycaenidae - Gossamer Wings
Riodiniidae - Metalmarks
Nymphalidae - Brush-footed Butterflies
The Hedylidae do not occur in our area, but the others are all well-represented here. The Riodiniidae are still recognized as a distinct family from Lycaenidae by many authors (particularly in the Americas), though this is debated, and perhaps as many other authors consider the group as only a subfamily. Similarly, certain subfamilies of the Nymphalidae are still sometimes treated as full families (particularly the Danainae, Morphinae, and the Satyrinae), though this is seen less and less in recent decades.
wingspan 7-300 millimetres
Nearly all butterflies have thin antennae with "knobs" on the end, and are typically active during the day.
Skippers are butterflies that have previously been separated by many authors into their own superfamily, Hesperioidea, but that has been shown to be an unnatural arrangement. Most have a narrow curved tip on the antennae (the "apiculus") which is absent in other butterflies.
"Moths" include all other Lepidoptera, and while there are many exceptions, most have colors more dull, unclubbed antennae that are filimentous or feather-like, and most fly at night. Many fold their wings tent-like over their backs when at rest, while very few butterflies fold their wings this way.
throughout North America
world-wide, except Antarctica
Habitats are varied, but adult butterflies are typical of open, sunny places, such as old fields. Some groups are typical of woodlands.
Adult butterflies use their coiled mouthparts to feed, primarily to suck nectar from flowers. In the process they may transfer pollen from one flower to another, and many plants depend on butterflies (and moths) for pollination.
Nearly all caterpillars feed on plants. See World Database of Lepidopteran Hostplants
, though some feed on other organic materials, and some are carnivorous.
These insects undergo complete metamorphosis
; that is, each individual goes through four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult.
Gender differences: "In some there are dramatic differences in pattern, scaling, structure, or shape, but in most it is more subtle. In some groups (i.e. Swallowtails) you can tell just by seeing the side or bottom of the tip of the abdomen, because the male claspers (=valvae) are very visible. In other groups (including the subfamily Nymphalinae) the claspers are harder to see, but are still there, and affect the shape of the abdomen. In males of many groups the pair of claspers, which even if hidden by a clump of hair-like scales, gives the tip of the abdomen a blunt look from the side, and usually a slightly squared or bilobed look from above or below (nearly pointed in females as veiwed from above or below). Also, the abdomen of females tends to be plump and rather symmetrical in shape, widest near the middle or sometimes the base, while the abdomen of the males is usually more slender and especially from the side less symmetrical in shape, with a tendency to be slightly widest near the end. Often males have proportionately longer abdomens, but this is more noticeable in some groups than others. In most of the family Nymphalidae, the males have the wings less full and less rounded, often somewhat more angular in shape. The hind wing of males is often distinctly more angular at the hind end (near the tip of the abdomen), while in females it is usually much more rounded. On average males tend to be smaller than females, and often more active and more inclined to chase after things or act aggressively." Comment by David J. Ferguson,
Brock and Kaufman, Butterflies of North America (3)
Glassberg, et al., Butterflies Through Binoculars: The East (4)
, Butterflies Through Binoculars: The West (5)
, Butterflies through Binoculars: Florida (6)
Opler et al., A Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies (7)
, A Field Guide to Western Butterflies (8)
Pyle, National Audubon Society Field Guide to Butterflies (9)
see also listings under butterfly books
Allen et al., A Field Guide to Caterpillars
--covers most butterfly caterpillars (10)
Allen, The Butterflies of West Virginia and Their Caterpillars
--extensive life-history information (11)
Pyle and Hughes, Handbook for Butterfly Watchers (12)
Schappert, A World for Butterflies: Their Lives, Habitats and Future
--good discussion of mimicry complexes (13)
Scott, The Butterflies of North America
--comprehensive reference on taxonomy and life histories (2)
Wagner, Caterpillars of Eastern North America
--covers many butterfly and moth caterpillars (14)
Partridge, Eric (1958). Origins, A Short Etymological History of Modern English. New York: Macmillan.
Butterflies of Canada
(Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility)
An old (May 2003) PDF list of scientific names for North American Butterflies
by Opler & Warren.
Contributed by Troy Bartlett
on 16 February, 2004 - 12:32pm
Additional contributions by cotinis
, Hannah Nendick-Mason
, john and jane balaban
, Steve Nanz
, Beatriz Moisset
, Robin McLeod
, Lynette Elliott
, Jay Barnes
, Hartmut Wisch
, Christopher C Wirth
, Jason D. Roberts
, Nick Block
, David Ferguson
, Kyhl Austin
, Nathaniel Green
Last updated 8 December, 2022 - 5:36pm