The Butterfly Life Cycle
The butterfly is a fascinating insect, forming from a caterpillar to a beautifully winged creature in less than one month.
Butterflies are a group of insects belonging to the family Lepidoptera, literally meaning "scaly winged." Much like the common moth, the butterfly has wings covered in scales.
There are approximately 20, 000 species of the butterfly around the globe. Roughly 725 different species exist in North America, with 575 of these living regularly in the lower 48 states of the U.S. There are 2,000 species of butterfly today in Mexico.
Like all insects, butterflies have a small head, thorax, abdomen, two antennae and six legs. Butterflies also carry four wings, which are covered by colored scales. Butterflies have a hard outer covering, known as an "exoskeleton," that supports and protects their body.
Butterflies are day creatures, spending their evenings perched on the underside of leaves, crawling deep between blades of grass or pushing themselves in crevices in rocks. Once the sun goes down, butterflies find a resting place and sleep.
One of the butterfly's most keen senses is its incredible sense of smell. Through the use of chemoreceptors at the ends of their antennas and bottoms of their feet, butterflies are able to smell danger hundreds of feet away.
Adult butterflies have many natural enemies including birds, bats, lizards, spiders and a variety of insects.
Most adult butterflies drink nectar from flowers through their tongues, which work much like a straw. Butterflies have also been known to consume some green plant matter, as well. Butterfly caterpillars survive on plant matter consisting of leaves, some seeds and seed pods.
Butterflies use their sight to locate mates, identifying wing colors and patterns that are characteristic of their own species. It is common during the breeding season for males to stake out territories, where they sit and wait for females to approach.
Once a male and female have found each other, the male begins to perform a courtship dance. Scientists have concluded that this active ritual exposes the female to pheromones. The female also releases pheromones from her abdomen. Once the two have sensed the other's pheromones (by using the smelling antennae), the pair joins on a plant or perch for a simple, brief encounter, which involves bringing the tips of their abdomens together. During this joining, the male uses his penis to pass spermatophore to the female.
Once mating has finished, the female stores sperm in her reproductive tract, where fertilization takes place just before each egg is laid. The female then releases each egg near heavy plant life. Eggs hatch between three days to one month after they are laid.
CATERPILLAR TO BUTTERFLY
As the egg hatches into larva (known as the caterpillar), it consumes its own eggshell and begins feeding immediately on leaves, buds and flowers. As the caterpillar reaches full size, it prepares for metamorphosis, during which it will change into a colorful butterfly. The caterpillar pupates by attaching itself to a twig or leaf, anchoring itself by spinning a button of silk. Hanging from the twig, the caterpillar then sheds its skin and spins a cocoon of silk around their body for protection. The caterpillar then changes into a pupa, as the tissues and organs of the caterpillar break down into a soupy liquid and then, reassemble themselves into the tissues and organs of an adult butterfly. When development completes, the adult butterfly splits open the pupal shell and crawls out.
Adult butterflies live from one week to one month. Butterflies that exist in the wild tend to live shorter periods of time, due to their many natural predators.