The Lepidoptera are beloved among insects. Most of us are familiar with butterflies fluttering beauty, seasonal migrations, and amazing ability to transform from caterpillars. But here are some surprising facts about butterflies which you may not have heard:
1. A butterfly’s personal history is gruesome. During metamorphosis inside the cocoon, a caterpillar must completely digest its own body before transforming into a butterfly. It becomes an unrecognizable goop that eventually reconstitutes into the butterfly life stage, with a very different body plan.
2. Butterflies can taste with their feet. Sensors on the back of their legs determine the quality of sugar in a flower. Butterfly feet can also taste leaves. Before depositing eggs, a female butterfly can find out whether a leaf will be edible to her offspring. Her sense of taste ensures a ready first meal when her eggs hatch into little caterpillars.
3. Some butterflies can hear. A few species, for example the Zebra Longwing, are equipped with microscopic hearing organs that can detect sound. Its two eardrums are located at the base of the underside of its wings.
4. It’s widely known that butterfly wings are covered in scales. Each tiny scale is just a fraction of a millimeter in size — there can be upwards of 600 individual scales in a square millimeter of a butterfly wing. The functions of the scales go beyond display, aerodynamics, and protection from the elements. Scales also confer a defensive ability. A butterfly’s wing scales detach easily, falling off the wing to help the insect escape from a tight spot, for instance from an attacker or a spider web. This is why it’s important not to touch a butterfly — if it loses scales it could get cold and die.
5. To regulate flight, butterflies use their bodies as much as their wings. A butterfly moves its abdomen like the rudder of a sailboat. And their wings are like the sails. Filming butterfly flight in slow motion and with thermal imaging, researchers at the National Taiwan University have shown that butterfly body posture is an important aspect of their flight.