The large insect order of Lepidoptera comprises butterflies as well as moths. In total, the order is made up of 174,250 species and several families and superfamilies and is one of the four most speciose animal orders. There are many variations in basic body structure of lepidopterans due to advantageous lifestyle and distribution. Lepidopteran is Greek and means the scale winged.
One of the most prominent features of the order are their bodies and wings which are covered by scales. The scales are a type of modified and flattened hair which enable a large variety of patterns and colours. The majority of species have membranous wings which flap in synchrony when they fly. Another typical feature is the proboscis which is used for feeding and sucking. Male and female butterflies can have different wing colours and patterns. Some butterflies have a different appearance depending on the geographical area they inhabit or the season they find themselves in.
Flight is an important means of movement for the species, used in their search for food, the evasion of predators and the finding of mates. Lepidopterans have to be warm, around 25°C, to be able to fly. To heat up they sit in the sun or warm their bodies with their wings. Some species have adapted to hotter climates and use mechanisms to cool down. A few lepidopterans can fly at up to nearly 50 km/h.
As is common in the order of insects, butterflies undergo complete metamorphosis. The larvae are called caterpillars and look very different from the adult insect. They go through a series of stages in which they change their appearance. A fully matured larva develops into a pupa called chrysalis. Some species pupate inside a silk cocoon, others go underground. The order is highly diversified: Most lepidopterans are terrestrial, while some are aquatic – excluding the adult. Generally, adult butterflies and moths do not live long. However, there are species that live several weeks; some go through diapause over the winter or when they wait for environmental stress to pass.
Usually butterflies are popular with humans because of their beauty and their role as important pollinators. However, butterfly larva are also considered pests since they feed on live plants and can destroy crops.