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Butterflies, Moths, and Skippers

Provided by Audubon Society of Rhode Island

When the weather in Rhode Island is warm and the summer breezes blow, butterflies and moths are at their most active.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Butterflies and moths along with skippers are part of the Lepidoptera family of insects. The name Lepidoptera means “scale wing.” The beautiful broad wings these creatures possess are covered by tiny, brittle overlapping scales – which is why you should never handle a butterfly or moth by its wings as the scales come off so easily! The scales produce the colors and patterns we see on the wings. These animals are not just colorful in their adult form. Caterpillars, chrysalids and cocoons also reflect a myriad of colors, shapes and textures.

The question often arises as to what the differences are amongst butterflies, skippers and moths. What makes each group unique? There aren’t always hard and fast rules, but given below is a chart that provides some basic characteristics that distinguish each group.

Cocoon vs. Chrysalis

All Lepidopterans have four life stages. They begin as an egg laid on a host (food) plant by their mother. They hatch into a larva called a caterpillar, which eats (and poops!) constantly, shedding its skin several times (called instars) until they reach their full size and are ready to transform into a pupa. Butterflies usually attach themselves to an underside of a leaf or twig and form the hard-shelled chrysalis which can be dull and camouflaged or sometimes brightly colored with metallic gold flecks. Moths, on the other hand, may bury themselves in the soil, form underground cells or weave themselves into a spun silken casing called a cocoon. No matter the container, inside an amazing transformation is taking place. All those caterpillar pro-legs are being reabsorbed, wings are forming, and their whole body is changing into the adult butterfly.European Skipper

After emerging, some butterflies and moths live for weeks, feeding on nectar and other material – others live just a few days. They must mate and reproduce before their life is over in order to start the cycle over again.

– Antennae clubbed
– Wings typically held closed vertically at rest, upright over body
-Most are diurnal
– Body slender and smooth
– Most are brightly colored

– Antennae clubbed with hooked ends
– Wings typically held partially open vertically at rest
– Most are diurnal
– Body thick
– Most are dull colored, especially shades of orange to brown

– Antennae not clubbed, sometimes comb-like
– Wings typically held closed at rest, flat against body, horizontally
– Most are nocturnal
– Body thick and often fuzzy
– Most are dull colored and often camouflaged


Images provided by Audubon Society of Rhode Island: Eastern-Tiger-Swallowtail (top), European Skipper (middle), Moth (bottom)

Audubon’s Environmental Education Center is open year-round providing walking trails, nature programs, and exhibits for the whole family to discover.  For more information and a complete calendar of events, visit www.asri.org or call (401) 245-7500.

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