The beautiful and often subtle colours of moths and butterflies are formed by thousands of tiny scales that cover the wings. The scientific name Lepidoptera actually means “scaly wings”. Their intricate patterns may be used to attract a mate, blend in with the background, to startle predators or to advertise that they taste bad. They are both loved for their beauty and reviled for the sometimes destructive feeding habits of their caterpillars. There are around 416 species of butterflies and over 22 000 moths in Australia. Perhaps as many as half of Australia’s moths are yet to be formally named.
Cairns Birdwing, Ornithoptera euphorion
North Queensland Day Moth, Alcides metaurus.
One of our more bizarre caterpillars, a species of snout moth from the genus Entometa.
Moths and butterflies have 4 wings covered with distinctive broad, flattened scales. Identification of moths and butterflies is mostly based on the shape, colour patterns and venation (pattern of veins) of the wings.
Another characteristic feature of moths and butterflies is their long, tubular, curled proboscis through which they suck up liquid food.
Their larvae are commonly called caterpillars which have a soft fleshy body and a rounded sclerotised (hardened) head. Caterpillars usually have three pairs of jointed legs on the thorax and often extra fleshy ‘legs” called prolegs on the abdomen.
Difference between moths and butterflies
There is no hard and fast rule for telling moths and butterflies apart. Butterflies generally fly in the daytime, they have swollen ends to their antennae and their front and rear wings are not locked together during flight. Moths are mostly nocturnal, their antennae are varied in shape, but rarely swollen at the end, and they often have bristles which hook the wings together in flight.
The Common Imperial Blue Butterfly, Jalmenus evagoras.
Moth, Syntherata janetta
Moths and butterflies undergo abrupt metamorphosis, meaning their immature stages are larvae (caterpillars) that are very different from the adults. Eggs hatch into caterpillars, which grow and moult several times. The fully grown caterpillar moults into a pupa (or chrysalis) from which the adult butterfly or moth emerges.
Most caterpillars feed on plants, usually eating the leaves. Caterpillars of most species are fussy about which plants they will eat. Knowing the plants favoured by particular species is of great assistance in finding their caterpillars. Some caterpillars are predacious, feeding on other caterpillars or soft-bodied insects such as ant larvae or scale insects.
Caterpillars spin threads of strong silk from glands just behind their mouth. Many use the silk to build a shelter – the cocoon – in which the pupa or chrysalis is concealed during the transformation from caterpillar to adult. Butterfly caterpillars do not make a cocoon, but in many species the pupa is supported by a loop of silk.
Adult moths and butterflies generally feed on nectar which they suck up with their long proboscis. The adults of some species have greatly reduced mouthparts and do not feed at all.
Lifecycle of the Common Crow Butterfly (Euploea core)
Common Crow butterfly egg (Euploea core)
Common Crow caterpillar (Euploea core)
Common Crow pupa (Euploea core)
Adult Common Crow (Euploea core)
Agape chloropyga (Aganaidae)
Anisozyga fascinans (Geometridae)
Anisozyga sp. larva (Geometridae)
Calogramma picta (Noctuidae)
Ceryx sphenodes (Arctiidae)
Cyana meyricki (Arctiidae)
Donuca orbigera (Noctuidae)
Cup moth larva Doratifera quadriguttata (Limacodidae)
Meadow Argus butterfly Junonia villida (Nymphalidae)
Orchard Swallowtail larva Papilio aegeus (Papilionidae)
Parotis sp. (Pyalidae)
Granny’s cloak moth, Speiredonia spectans (Noctuidae)
Xanthodes transversa larva (Noctuidae)
Further information on moth and butterfly families and their identification can be found in the following books and websites:
Moths – http://www.ento.csiro.au/anic/moths.html – CSIRO’s Moths online featuring pinned images of many identified moth species.
‘Moths of Australia’ (Common, 1990, Melbourne University Press) provides a wealth of information on Australian moths, treating all families and illustrating numerous frequently encountered species. (now out of print but second-hand copies may still be available).
‘The Checklist of the Lepidoptera of Australia’ (Nielsen, Edwards & Rangsi, 1996, CSIRO Publishing) provides a comprehensive, annotated list of described Australian moth genera and species.
‘A Guide to Australian Moths’ (Zborowski and Edwards, 2007, CSIRO Publishing) has colour illustrations of living moths and provides a rough guide to recognising moth families. Answers frequently asked questions about moths and features iconic Australian species such as the bogong moth, witjuti grub and scribbly gum moths.
Butterflies of Australia – Their Identification, Biology and Distribution http://www.publish.csiro.au/pid/2373.htm
Michael F Braby 2000Australian National Insect Collection, CSIRO Entomology, Publisher: CSIRO PUBLISHING
The Complete Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia http://www.publish.csiro.au/nid/18/pid/3948.htm Michael F Braby (2004) Australian National University, Publisher: CSIRO PUBLISHING
For the love of moths | Beneficial animals and insects | Gardening Australia
Australia is a moth hotspot and that’s great for the environment and our gardens. Jane visits the Melbourne Museum to find out why.
Professor Ken Walker, senior curator of entomology at Museums Victoria, says that moths are the unsung heroes of Australian fauna. But the difference between butterflies and moths is a human division, he says: In nature, it doesn’t really work.
First theoretical difference is that butterflies fly during the day, but moths fly at night, but there are dayflying moths as well. Another difference is the antennae: In moths, they have very feathery antennae, whereas butterflies have just got a single antenna there. That’s because nightflying moths produce pheromones, so the males need large, feathery antenna to pick up female scent. Dayflying moths don’t rely on scent so much so have butterflyshaped antennae.
Moths vastly outnumber butterflies: There’s about 400 species of butterflies and 11,000 species of moths in Australia. It’s unlikely we’ll discover many new butterflies, but there are possibly another 10,000 or 20,000 moth species that we haven’t yet listed. This is partly because moths are excellent at diversifying they’re found in pretty much every part of Australia, even the arid centre.
Moths are critical species for our gardens – We often think of butterflies as good while moths are pests, but this isn’t the case; only a small handful of caterpillars give the rest a bad name, and most of these are introduced.
For gardeners, moths do an awful lot of pollination.
For bird lovers, 60% of our birds feed on insects, and a main part of their diet is moths. Many other animals also rely on them for food, so they’re an important part of our ecosystems. However habitat loss and climate change are affecting their life cycles.
Ken shows Jane some of the Museum’s moth collection, including:
Hercules moth (Coscinocera hercules), the biggest moth in the world, found in northern Australia
Cossid moths (family Cossidae), the adult form of witchetty grubs
Hawk moths (family Sphingidae), tremendous pollinators, with elegant markings
Emperor gum moth (Opodiphthera eucalypti), with two large ‘eye’ markings that makes it appear larger to predators
Bogong moth (Agrotis infusa), a small migratory moth that flies from Queensland to the Victorian Alps each summer.
Melbourne Museum’s moth collection is the second largest in Australia, and much of its curation is down to the work of volunteers such as moth experts, Peter Marriott and Marilyn Hewish.
They are gradually working through the thousands of moths, family by family, drawer by drawer, sorting the specimens and checking the correct names.
Jane visits Royal Park with volunteer Cathy Powers, who explains that moths need nectarproducing flowing plants to eat, as well as food plants for their larvae (caterpillars). “A diverse garden is really critical,” Cathy says. Local indigenous plants are best.
Bottlebrushes (Melaleuca spp., syn Callistemon spp.)
Melaleucas (Melaleuca spp.)
Blue hibiscus (Alyogyne hueglii)
Grevilleas (Grevillea cv.)
Cathy adds that mulch is also important, because some larvae eat the mulch and break it down for you, plus it protects the plants and soil underneath, and some moths lay their eggs in it.
As the sun sets, Peter, Cathy and Marilyn set up a white sheet with a spotlight to attract moths and see what is in the area.
One of the first moths is one that moth expert Marilyn has never seen before.
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