What’s the Difference Between Moths and Butterflies?
You’ve probably never confused a butterfly and a moth before. But that might be due the fact that butterflies don’t really like chasing flashlights like moths. Generally speaking, we all kind of just get the vibe. You know, moths are ugly and butterflies are pretty. But we’ve definitely seen some pretty cool moths and there are definitely some ugly butterflies out there. So let’s get technical. What exactly is the difference between moths and butterflies?
In terms of taxonomy, moths and butterflies share the same order, which is both pretty close and pretty far. It depends on how you put things into perspective. As you’ve gathered from this section’s heading, the order moths and butterflies share is lepidoptera. It’s actually one of the most widespread taxonomic orders out there, housing over 180,000 different species.
Which would tell you that moths and butterflies are probably not similar at all, and they’d likely not be too happy about being conflated. If they could have opinions anyway.
To put things into perspective, us humans are in the primate order. Which means we have a lot more in common (under taxonomy) with chimpanzees than moths and butterflies have in common.
Probably one of the most different animals from us that shares the primate order is the lemur. We diverge from them at the same point in the taxonomic tree as moths do from their generally prettier butterfly counterparts.
Broadly speaking, lepidoptera share what you might expect.
- Reproductive systems
- Digestive systems
- Circulatory systems
- Respiratory systems
- Polymorphism (Males looking different from females, or looking different in the spring/summer, etc)
- Development cycles
- Polarized light-based navigation
- Seasonal migration patterns
In case you were wondering, moth larvae are also called caterpillars.
So What’s Actually Different?
There are some differences in appearance if you kinda squint. Okay, but seriously. Moths and butterflies actually have different antennae. Butterfly antennae are described as “clubbed horn” while moths are dubbed “varied.” Clubbed horns are exactly as they sound–butterfly antennae are long and thin, ending in a nice little nub.
By contrast, our light-seeking moth friends have a lot of variance. They get comb or feather-looking antennae and all sorts of weird looking stuff. So they kind of fell under the “everything else” category.
Moth wings are also different, the majority of their wing structures have the fore and hindwings coupled. Butterflies don’t couple their wings like this.
This one is pretty easy but it requires you look at the larval versions of these buggers. Moths like silk cocoons as they mature into their winged forms, while butterflies don’t bother with making themselves a snug little home. Their pupae are just hard on the outside instead.
This comes with an asterisk though, some moths don’t make cocoons and their pupae are exposed like butterflies–they just hide them.
Because moths are typically active in low light conditions, their eyes are typically far more light sensitive.
Oh moths are also furry. Take that as you will.
We touched on it a little, but moths are generally active at night or at the edges of dawn and dusk. Suffice to say, they typically are around when the Sun isn’t. Butterflies typically roam free during the daytime.
Further Reading: Why Are Moths Drawn to Light?
Moths and butterflies also like to laze around differently. Butterflies tend to hold their wings up–probably because they’re majestic and think they’re better than us, or something. Moths, space providing, will typically spread their wings out or fold them onto their backs.
We went over the differences between our friends–see if you can nail the difference by name here.