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Butterfly Species Information

Butterfly Species InformationLepidoptera (pronounced /ˌlɛpɪˈdɒptərə/) is a large order of insects that includes moths and butterflies (called lepidopterans). Lepidoptera is one of the largest orders in the world encompassing butterflies and moths that are found just about everywere. Have you ever wondered about species you have seen? There are approximately 750 species of butterflies in the United States. As a comparison, there are some 17,500 species known in the world. We have put together this section on butterfly identification to help you find out what species you may have seen.

Observing butterflies in the field is very fun and beautiful but correctly identifying them can be a great challenge. With some time and practice, you can learn to identify that unknown butterfly.

The first thing you normally notice when you see a butterfly is it's size. Butterflies come in three basic sizes that are very easy to remember. Small,Medium and Large. By learning this it will help you start to categorize that unknown butterfly. If your like me you will look at the wingspan. I remember the size of the wingspan from tip to tip.

Next, I look for the color and pattern of the wings. Look for the overall color of the wing. Is it mostly black, orange or white? Do you see any major patterns? Such as, distinct stripes, bands or spots? It can be very hard to tell these factors as the butterfly is darting and banking up and down as it flies. You could be seeing the upper surface of the wings (dorsal surface)or the underside of the wing (ventral surface). So be sure to observe as best as possible.

Lastly, I look for the shape of the butterfly's wings. Are they long, narrow, broad, pointed, or angled? Next, do they have any distinct shapes? Such as tails or points? Knowing this information will help you greatly in narrowing down species.

Observing the way in which the butterly flies may also be helpful for identifcation. Note weather the butterfly is flying high in the sky or low to the ground. Does it fly slow or fast and erratically? Does it seem to fly then float?

Attempt to watch your subject feeding. Does the subjects wings beat fast when nectaring or folded behind it's back not moving at all. This is very easy to see and will help greatly to narrow your look.

What type of habitat does the butterfly reside in? Is it woodlands, pasturelands or swamps? Many buttterflies like particular habitats. Some will only stay in certain habitats and some will roam many different habitats.

Note what time of the year you see the butterfly. Certain butterflies will only be around one particular time of the year due to oonly one generation being produced. Some, also overwinter and are not seen at all during the winter.

When you have all of these important factors gathered together you will be able to start and close in on the identification of that butterfly in your backyard.

U.S. butterflies are placed in the following Families.

Skippers (Hesperiidae)

There are more than 200 species of Skippers in the United States. Their name is derived from their erratic flight habits. A few physical characteristics separate them from all other butterflies, these including antennae that are usually hooked or recurved, and wing venation that usually is dissimilar to butterflies. The Giant Skippers of the southern and western states have larvae that bore in the stems and roots of yucca and similar plants. These larvae are sold as food in Mexico, and sometimes appear as canned products in gourmet shops in the United States.

Firetips (Pyrrhopyginae)

Spread-wing Skippers (Pyrginae)

Grass Skippers (Hesperiinae)

Giant-Skippers (Megathyminae)



Blues and Hairstreaks (Lycaenidae)

Most butterflies of this family are relatively small and sometimes quite colorful. Elfins are brownish species that appear in the spring. Coppers are a group that are popular and found mostly in open areas of marshes and meadows. Hairstreaks often have delicate hairlike extensions on their hind wings. Blues are the smallest of the Family, and include the Pygmy Blue of the West, the smallest U.S. butterfly.

Harvesters (Miletinae)

Coppers (Lycaeninae)

Hairstreaks (Theclinae)

Blues (Polyommatinae)



Brush-footed Butterflies (Nymphalidae)

The families Danaidae, Heliconiidae, Libytheidae and Satyridae, which are sometimes considered separate families in popular books, are included in the family Nymphalidae. One of the most prominent groups of nymphalids is the Fritillary Butterflies. Their underwings are usually marked with silvery spots. The Mourning Cloak is one of the few butterflies that overwinter as adults, accomplishing this by building up body chemicals similar to antifreeze. The Viceroy mimics the Monarch, a species distasteful to birds and other predators, and thus escapes being eaten.

Snouts (Libytheinae)

Milkweed Butterflies (Danainae)

Clearwing Butterflies (Ithomiinae)

Longwings (Heliconiinae)

True Brushfoots (Nymphalinae)

Admirals and Relatives (Limenitidinae)

Tropical Brushfoots (Biblidinae)

Leafwings (Charaxinae)

Emperors (Apaturinae)

Morphos (Morphinae)

Satyrs and Wood-Nymphs (Satyrinae)

Swallowtails (Papilionidae)

There are less than 30 species in the United States, compared with some 600 species worldwide. Most species are quite large, colorful and with tails on the hindwings. Included in this Family are the Parnassius butterflies that are typically white with colorful spots on the tailless wings.

Parnassians (Parnassiinae)

Swallowtails (Papilioninae)



Whites and Sulphurs and Yellows (Pieridae)

There are some 60 species in the United States, compared to about 1,100 worldwide. General colors in these mid-sized butterflies are usually white or yellow, while some species have orange-tipped wings or greenish marbling on the wings. The Cabbage White, perhaps the most common U.S. butterfly, is in this group.

Mimic-Whites (Dismorphiinae)

Whites (Pierinae)

Sulphurs (Coliadinae)



Metalmarks (Riodinidae)

There are about a dozen species in the United States, and more than 1,000 in the world. Ninety percent of the world species occur in Latin America. They are small butterflies, often rust-colored, and only two species are found in the eastern U. S.