10 min read

What makes Butterflies so Unique?

Butterflies are beautiful and possess some of the most striking colour displays found in nature. Dancing and twirling from flower to flower, their colourful wings seem to shimmer and change colour before our very eyes. Here are 10 obscure facts about our rainbow winged friends you may not already know.1) They have 3 pairs of legs

Image Courtesy of Evan Leeson

2 legs per pair; 3x2=6...Yes that's 6 legs in total - and humans struggle with two! Their feet have little claws to help them stand on flowers, and grip on with so they don't get blown away by big gusts of wind or flying objects. Some butterflies, like the peacock, only use 4 of their legs, carrying the 2 front legs against their bodies. They're clearly the most acrobatic species! 2) They mostly use their feet to taste, not their tongue.

Image Courtesy of Challiyl Eswaramangalath Pavithran Vipin

For humans this would be pretty disgusting and unhygienic, but for butterflies, despite having tongues that can be as long as their bodies, this is usual procedure. The reason why they primarily make use of their feet is because of the tiny sensory organelles that enable them to taste the flower as soon as they land on it. That's kind of like being able to taste a sandwich just by picking it up. Pretty neat!

3) They are cold-blooded.

Image Courtesy of Cassandra Jowett

Butterflies are technically of blue blood and can only feed or fly when their bodies are warmed up to a tropical 30 degrees! They are often seen basking with their wings wide open and adjust the angle accordingly to expose as much of the wing to sunlight as possible – similarly to a solar panel. Heat travels from the wings to the body via veins located in the wings themselves. Who needs a hot water bottle in winter when you could just cuddle a butterfly?

4) Antarctica is the only continent on the planet without them

Image Courtesy of Christopher Michel

You'd have thought Antarctica would've been the perfect place for these cold-blooded beauties, but not one can be seen across the white plane. Not just butterflies, but there are no insects in Antarctica at all because it is much too cold! The barren land has no trees or flowers which means no sources of food.

5) They can fly at speeds of up to 50km/h

Image Courtesy of djhsilver

Imagine a butterfly behind the wheel of a car? Because that's about the speed it would be going. That's the speed cars are required to reach when merging onto the motorway. Usain Bolt might want to take some tips!

6) They weigh as little as two rose petals

Image Courtesy of Nana B Agyei

Although it would be funny to see one try, it's quite obvious that an elephant would not be able to stand on a plant without crushing it to death. Flowers are brittle and precious, as are the butterflies that feed on them. They have to be delicate in their approach in order to just take what is needed and move on, leaving no trace.

7) They get their colour from two different sources

Image Courtesy of Alain Picard

Ordinary colour comes from normal chemicals that absorb some wavelengths of light and reflect others. An example of this is chlorophyll, which colours plants green. It soaks up the blue and red colours, but not the green, which is what you see when it bounces back to your eye.

Structural colour is where things get more interesting. This is dependent on the specific structure of the individual butterflies' wings. The colour can shift as the observer moves, an effect known as iridescence. You can also see this shimmery effect when looking through soap bubbles. It occurs when light passes through a transparent, muiltlayered surface and is reflected more than once. The multiple reflections intensify the colours. This gives butterflies their trademark glittery beauty.

8) Their wings are actually transparent

Image Courtesy of Eddy Van 3000

Butterfly wings are covered in thousands of microscopic scales that are split into two to three layers. Each of these scales has multiple layers that are separated by air. Due to iridescence, the more layers the wings have for light to pass through, the more times the light is reflected. The combination of all of these reflections is what causes the intense colours that you see in various species.

9) They get their different shades of brown and yellow from melanin

Image Courtesy of Andrea

Melanin is responsible for determining skin and hair colour. It is auto-immune but can be affected by excessive exposure to sunlight, such as going on holiday to a hot country. It is what makes you tan. Most butterflies get their different shades of brown and yellow from the amount of melanin they have, so they don't have to hit the sun beds!

10) Caterpillars are boneless, but have over 1000 muscles

Image Courtesy of Vicki DeLoach

Scientists believe the human body only has 650 muscles. A caterpillar, approximately the same size as an adult finger, has almost twice as many. Makes you feel incredibly inferior doesn't it? But why does a creature so small need so many? Speed. They can move at an extremely quick pace which helps them to get away from predators!

Why not volunteer abroad and appreciate the striking colour displays for yourself? Frontier offers Wildlife Conservation projects in Tanzania, Costa Rica and Madagascarwhere you can immerse yourself in the culture and explore. Get involved!

By Rebecca MacDonald – Taylor Frontier runs conservation, development, teaching and adventure travel projects in over 50 countries worldwide - so join us and explore the world!