What Is The Difference Between A Moth And A Butterfly?

Both moths and butterflies belong to the same order of insects, Lepidoptera. They look similar to one another and share the same four-stage life-cycle. So why is Lepidoptera divided into moths and butterflies? What is the difference between moth and butterfly?

On this page we’ll provide answers to these questions, and we’ll also discover some surprising facts about the evolution of moths and butterflies…

Moth Vs Butterfly Page Index

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Moths and butterflies are closely related (in fact, butterflies evolved from moths) and both groups of insect share many similarities. However, there are some useful ‘rules of thumb’ for telling moths and butterflies apart:

What Is The Difference Between Moth And Butterfly?

The main behavioral difference between moths and butterflies is that nearly all butterflies are diurnal (active during the day), whereas most moths are nocturnal.

In addition, there are a number of physical characteristics that can be used to differentiate between moths and butterflies.

Moth vs Butterfly
In general, moths tend to be less conspicuous than butterflies.
  • Butterflies tend to be brightly-colored and often have conspicuous markings. Moths, by contrast, tend to have less conspicuous colors and markings.
  • The antennae of a moth are feathery and pointed, whereas those of a butterfly are thin and end with a ball or club.
Difference between moth and butterfly antennae
Difference between moth and butterfly antennae

The way in which moths and butterflies hold their wings when at rest can also be used to tell the difference between butterflies and moths.

  • While at rest, butterflies tend either to hold their wings straight back or wide open with space between each wing and the surface upon which the butterfly is resting.
  • By contrast, most moths either rest with their wings folded back over their bodies, or with their wings open and touching the surface upon which the moth is resting.
Butterfly vs Moth at rest
When at rest, the wings of many moths are drawn back over the body, and touch the surface upon which the moth is resting.

Other differences between moths and butterflies include…

  • During their pupal stage, moths make cocoons out of silk in which they metamorphose from caterpillars into adult moths.
  • Instead of silken cocoons, most butterflies form chrysalises, which have hard outer skins, in their pupal stage.
  • The fore and hind wings of moths are joined by a row of hair-like structures known as a frenulum, which is missing in many butterflies.

The above ‘rules’ can be used as a quick guide to telling moths and butterflies apart, but note, there are many exceptions!

To fully understand the difference between moth and butterfly we need to delve a little deeper into the evolution of both groups of insect.

Surprisingly, moths first appeared many millions of years before butterflies, and butterflies evolved from moths.


Small Copper Butterfly
Small copper butterfly, photographed in southern England.

Moths and butterflies make up the order Lepidoptera. (An order is a group of related animals. You can find out more about how animals are grouped on this page: Animal Classification.)

Lepidoptera means ‘scale wing’. The name refers to the many tiny scales which cover both the wings and the bodies of butterflies and moths.

Other insect orders include Diptera (flies), Hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants) and Coleoptera (beetles).

Like all insects, the bodies of moths and butterflies are divided into three segments: head, thorax and abdomen. All members of Lepidoptera go through a four-stage life-cycle, which consists of: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and imago (the adult moth or butterfly).

Butterflies make up their own group, Papilionoidea, within Lepidoptera*. Papilionoidea is a ‘superfamily’ that contains several butterfly families, including Papilionidae (swallowtails and birdwings) and Nymphalidae (the brush-footed butterflies).

* There is some debate over whether or not the moth-like Hedyloidea should be included within Papilionoidea.

How Many Moths and Butterflies Are There?

Luna Moth
Luna moth – not all moths have dull colors!

There are around 180,000 known species* in Lepidoptera. Only around 10% of these are butterflies; the remaining 90% are moths.

Most of the world’s moths and butterflies are found in tropical regions, although lepidopterans are present on every continent except Antarctica.

* The Catalogue of Life currently lists 149,827 species (source), the 1999 edition of the Handbuch der Zoologie (a renowned reference work) lists 174,250 species (source).

Together, butterflies and moths make up around 1% of all known organisms.

The Evolution of Moths and Butterflies

Blue morpho butterfly from South America

Whereas moths have been around since the dinosaurs, butterflies are relative newcomers, only having appeared in the last 55 million years.

Moths appeared many millions of years before butterflies. The very first moths appeared during the Jurassic Period. These early lepidopterans would have co-existed with dinosaurs.

The earliest known moth is Archaeolepis mane. A fossilized specimen has been dated to the Early Jurassic Period, around 190 million years ago.

During the Cretaceous Period the first flowering plants began to appear. The Lepidoptera and flowering plants coevolved, forming a relationship which was mutually beneficial.

The insects helped the plants to reproduce by transferring pollen, while the plants provided the insects with food in the form of nectar.

During the Cretaceous Period proboscises began to appear in adult lepidopterans. A proboscis is a curled, tongue-like mouthpart used by moths and butterflies to extract nectar from flowers. It is a feature of most modern butterflies and moths.

The first butterflies appeared around 55 million years ago, around 10 million years after the (non-avian) dinosaurs became extinct.

(The earliest-known American butterfly is Prodryas Persephone, whose fossilized remains have been dated to 34 million years ago.)

Butterflies evolved from moths. Because several different groups of moths had already appeared before butterflies, some moths are more closely related to butterflies than they are to moths in other groups.

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