The Lepidoptera are beloved among insects. Most of us are familiar with their 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. Butterfly metamorphosis is grisly. To become a butterfly, a caterpillar first digests its own body inside its cocoon. It dissolves into unrecognizable goop that slowly reconstitutes into a butterfly with a wholly different body plan.
2. Butterflies 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 knows whether a leaf will be edible to her offspring. Her sense of taste ensures a ready first meal when her eggs hatch into baby caterpillars.
3. Some species of butterfly possess a sense of hearing. The Zebra Longwing, for example, is equipped with microscopic hearing organs that can detect sound. Its two eardrums are located at the base of the underside of its wings.
4. The scales covering the wings of a butterfly are not only for display, aerodynamics, and protection from the elements. Butterfly wing scales also serve as defense. They detach easily from the wing to help the insect escape from tight spots, for instance from an attacker or a spider’s web. This is why it’s important not to touch a butterfly — if it loses scales it could get cold and die.
5. Butterflies have excellent posture. To regulate flight, the insects actually use their bodies as much as their wings. A butterfly controls its abdomen much like the rudder of a sailboat. And its wings are like sails. Filming butterfly flight in slow motion and with thermal imaging, researchers at the National Taiwan University have shown that butterfly body posture is integral to their flight.