Butterflies evolved somewhere between 40 and 50 million years ago, shortly (at least in the terms of deep time) after the dinosaurs died out. Like most winged insects the butterfly's life cycle consists of four parts, including the egg, larva, pupa finishing with the adult, sexually mature stage.
The larvae of butterflies are commonly called caterpillars. Caterpillars are mostly herbivores, spending most of their time on leaves eating and putting on weight.
The brightly coloured wings of butterflies typifies these beautiful creatures. However, this bright colouration isn't in fact created by pigments, although melanins create an overall shade. Minute scales on the wings reflect light in different ways, reflecting blues, greens, reds and the hypnotising iridescence that most exhibit.
As butterflies aren't the fastest or most agile animals they invest a lot of energy into predator avoidance. Some butterflies use mimicry to look like other dangerous or distasteful species, or they also use cryptic colouration to camouflage themselves and hide from predators.
In some cases butterflies can use the toxic chemicals plants use as a defence in their own defence. Having eaten the toxins, the butterflies then store them and use them as a method of putting predators off eating them.
Remarkably, some caterpillars are able to negotiate a mutual association with ants. By giving them gifts of honeydew the ants in turn protect the caterpillars, in a way, farming them as we do with cows.
- "Butterfly" from Old English "butorflēoge", perhaps a compound of "butor" which means "beater" and "flēoge" which means "to fly".
- The adult stage of butterflies is known as the "imago".
- A few species have caterpillars that are insect eaters.
- Some caterpillars are "farmed" by ants.