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There are over 18,000 butterfly species globally, and they are some of the most diverse insects. Butterflies are some of the most beautiful animals, and it is lovely to see them in our gardens. It is difficult to identify so many species, but I hope to give you some way of classifying them here.

There are six families of butterflies, and they can be identified by defining characteristics. Skippers are moth-like and can be seen darting when flying, swallowtails have forked hindwings, nymphalids are the most colourful and eye-catching and can be seen on four legs, and metalmarks have metal coloured patches. Gossamer butterflies often have an eyespot opposite their actual eyes, while whites and sulphur butterflies are primarily white or yellow.

There are six families of butterflies, and all are different. All species in each family have similar characteristics that identify them. By looking at the butterfly’s shape, size, and behaviour, the species can be determined.


Skippers (Hesperiidae)

There are over 3,500 species of skippers worldwide except in New Zealand. Most can be found in the neotropical regions of central and South America. Skippers are the most moth-like out of all the families of butterflies. They are heavy-bodied with a small head and body resembling moths. Although they can be mistaken for moths when flying, they hold their first wings vertically when at rest.

Skippers get their name from the way they fly. They can often be seen skipping and darting quickly around. Although some have bright colours, most are dull brown or grey with orange or white and black markings. They have wings spanning 2-8cm (3/4-3 1/2in.) The wings are well-rounded, and their antennae end in a curved club.

The black and yellow Australian regent skipper is probably the oldest butterfly alive today.

Skippers are classified into eight subfamilies. Females only lay single eggs, and caterpillars are herbivorous and can be seen feeding at night.

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Gossamer butterfly

Gossamer (Lycaenidae)

There are over 6,000 species worldwide, and they are the second-largest family of butterflies. They can be found in warmer areas of the world. Butterflies in the Lycaenidae family are small with a wingspan of 1.5-5cm (1/2-2in) with different colours between males and females. Females are generally dull, while males have iridescent wings and are brightly coloured.

Many of the blue butterflies found in North America and Europe are part of this family.

Caterpillars feed on plants and small insects. They produce a fluid that ants eat. In turn, the ants protect the caterpillar from predators. Some large produce sounds that they use to communicate with ants. 75% of species can be seen around ants, even feeding on their larvae.

Many butterflies in this family have a spot on the tail that confuses predators who try to prey on them.

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Swallowtail butterfly

Swallowtails (Papilionidae)

There are over 600 species worldwide where they can be found in warmer regions. They can be found in open, shader or flower-rich areas. This family includes birdwings which are the world’s largest species. Swallowtails can grow a wingspan up to 28cm (11in.) Swallowtails get their names from their hindwings. Their wings look like the swallow’s wings, the bird with a forked tail. When the butterfly is resting with its wings spread, the forked appearance of one, two or three tails can be seen on each wing.

The mocker swallowtail has been described as the most interesting butterfly in the world. They have numerous colour varieties in both sexes and imitate other butterflies.

They have dark wings with bands, patches, or blue, yellow, orange, white, red, or green spots. Swallowtails feed on nectar. The common evening brown is unusual for a butterfly as it flies only in the evening and at dawn.

Eggs are laid on plants, where they transform into caterpillars. Swallowtail caterpillars have a scent gland that emits a foul order, protecting them from predators such as ants, mantids, and spiders.


Nymphalids (Nymphalidae)

Nymphalids are the largest family of butterflies, with over 6,000 species that include some beautiful and eye-catching designs. Species include monarch butterflies, admirals, tortoiseshell, and emperors. The underwings are dull, looking like dead leaves so that when they are resting, they are hidden from predators. The cryptic colouring camouflages them while resting. Males and females are often different colours.

While many are brightly coloured, the Satyrine butterflies are brown or grey with distinctive spots on the edges of the wings.

They have short front legs covered with sensory bristles and held close to the head. They are often known as four-footed or brush-footed butterflies. They have a wingspan between 3-15cm (1 1/-6in) which are brightly coloured on top.

Nymphalids generally feed on nectar, but some will feed on carrion, fruit, dung or even urine.

After laying rounded eggs, the pupae have a warty appearance where they can be found hanging from plants.


Whites and sulphur (Pieridae)

There are over 1,200 species in this family worldwide but primarily found in Africa and Asia, although they can also be found in Europe and North America. Whites and sulphurs are usually yellow, orange, or white, with dark markings. The pigments in the wings come from their food, while caterpillars or waste products are in the body.

Some of the most common butterflies include cabbage whites, clouded yellows, and brimstones.

The name butterfly comes from the butter-coloured fly, a family member. They can often be seen in large quantities in mud puddles where they intake salt.

Caterpillars can be seen feeding on bird droppings and urine, clover, mustard, and alfalfa. Whites and sulphurs have a wingspan of 2-7cm (3/4-2 3/4in.)

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Metalmarks (Riodinidae)

There are over 1,500 species worldwide, although most of these can be found in North America. Many species have a small habitat and living area, and some are rarely seen. Metalmarks have rust or metallic coloured markings on their wings.

Metalmarks are small to medium with 12-60mm wingspans that are often different shapes depending on the species. Colours can range from iridescent blue and green to muted or even transparent.

Many species give the appearance of poisonous moths to deter predators. Males have reduced forelegs, with the first segment extending beyond the joint of the second, while females have longer legs.

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