Butterflies & moths

Another little display from the Carnegie I’ve had sat in my files for too long. OK so there’s nothing here that’s linked to archosaurs, or even evolution in general. But what it does do is address just the kind of question that often bugs people. I think a very big proportion of the public would recognise that moths and butterflies are close relatives and that they are different, but aside from the diurnal / nocturnal split and the fact that butterflies tend to be more colourful, they would probably struggle to say how you could tell them apart, or for that matter what linked them together.

My experiences with Ask A Biologist suggest this kind of thing is really common. People have bits of knowledge and part of the full picture, but don’t realise they have only part of the story and even if they did, don’t know how to go about filling in the gaps or putting their knowledge into context. In the case of AAB, someone has realised that don’t know the full picture, or has had their interest piqued by some incident.

In the case it’s actively prompting people – it’s easy to imagine someone looking at this and thinking “Oh yeah, what *is* the difference?”. The headline is a nice attention grabber and it’ll get people to read the short captions below and, hopefully, get them thinking a little more about taxonomy and diversity (if not in those terms) and the world around them. In short, neat idea, well done. I can easily see this being a nice series too – a line of panels of ‘What’s the difference between a shark and a fish?’ or frogs vs toads, newts vs salamanders, goats vs sheep and the like.

What is also nice about this is how much that is conveyed in such a small amount of space and few words. Maximum communication but without filling the place or making people struggle through dense text to get the message across, and all the time filling in other gaps in their knowledge with little extras like the addition of skippers or the relative numbers of species. Great stuff.

5 Responses to “Butterflies & moths”


  1. 1 Kilian Hekhuis 08/05/2012 at 2:01 pm

    As I understand it, the question is a bit misleading, as “moths” are a paraphyletic group, being defined as Lepidoptera sans Papilionoidea/Hesperioidea/Hedyloidea.

    • 2 Mark Robinson 09/05/2012 at 4:31 am

      Also, none of the gross anatomical or behavioural differences holds for all members. There are moths with clubbed antennae and butterflies without, there are diurnal (and sometimes very colourful) moths, altho’ I don’t think that there are any nocturnal butterflies.

      As for “What’s the difference?” series, I’d like to see one on pigeons and doves – there you go, actual archosaurs, and theropods to boot.

      “… that often *bugs* people.” ;-)

  2. 4 David Marjanović 10/05/2012 at 7:53 pm

    Salamanders are paraphyletic to newts (if “newt” means Molginae = Pleurodelinae, a part of Salamandridae itself), and “frog” and “toad” are utterly forgettable as scientific terms – unless you restrict them to Ranidae and Bufonidae, in which case most anurans are neither frogs nor toads. (Treefrogs? Closer to toads than to frogs. Clawed toads? Very distant from both. And so on.)

  3. 5 John Scanlon, FCD 13/05/2012 at 12:20 pm

    When I first learned, from an older brother when I was quite small, that “All butterflies are Lepidoptera, but not all Lepidoptera are butterflies” I (gradually) understood it as a paradigm of set theory. Later, I would think of “Butterflies are moths” as a paradigm of phylogenetic tree-thinking (like I have to remind my kids sometimes: “Birds are dinosaurs”).


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