Brush-Footed Butterflies, Family Nymphalidae

Habits and Traits of Brush-Footed Butterflies

Brush-footed butterfly.
Brush-footed butterflies have just two pairs of functional legs. Wikimedia Commons/Manu.mohan (CC by SA license)

The members of the family Nymphalidae include some of our most common and familiar butterflies. Though some are small, most are medium to large butterflies and quite easy to observe. This family encompasses quite a variety of butterflies, from the well-loved monarchs to the odd-shaped anglewings.


Brush-footed butterflies are so named for their modified forelegs, which are smaller than the other leg pairs.

These tiny legs look like small brushes, and cannot be used for walking. If you see a butterfly that appears to have only four legs, it's most likely a brush-footed butterfly.

Members of this family often overwinter as caterpillars, though some species, like the eastern comma, survive the winter as adults.

The brush-footed butterflies are divided into eight subfamilies, and includes some of our most familiar groups of butterflies:

  • Libytheinae – snout butterflies
  • Heliconiinae – heliconians and fritillaries
  • Nymphalinae – anglewings, crescents, and checkerspots
  • Limenitidinae – admirals, viceroy, and purples
  • Charaxinae – goatweed butterflies
  • Apaturinae – hackberry butterflies, emperors
  • Satyrinae – satyrs, wood nymphs, and arctics
  • Danainae – milkweed butterflies


Kingdom – Animalia
Phylum – Arthropoda
Class – Insecta
Order – Lepidoptera
Family - Nymphalidae


Most adult brush-footed butterflies live on a liquid diet of nectar from flowers.

Their mouthparts are modified into a straw-like proboscis, through which they can suck up the sugary juice. Some members of the family feed instead on sap flows or fermenting fruit, or even dung. Like nearly all butterfly larvae, the caterpillars feed on plants. Some Nymphalids require specific hosts, while others are generalist feeders.

Life Cycle:

As in all Lepidoptera families, the Nymphalidae undergo a complete metamorphosis. Brush-footed butterflies lay their eggs on the foliage of host plants. Caterpillars typically feed for several weeks, molting through several instar stages before pupating. In this family, the pupa is suspended from a hook-like structure called a cremaster. The adult butterfly emerges from the chrysalis.

Special Behaviors:

Male brush-footed butterflies perch and patrol when seeking mates.

Range and Distribution:

Worldwide, about 6,000 species belong to the butterfly family Nymphalidae, and these are divided into almost 550 genera. The greatest numbers inhabit the tropics. The brush-footed butterflies include approximately 210 species in North America.



  • Borror and Delong's Introduction to the Study of Insects, 7th edition, by Charles A. Triplehorn and Norman F. Johnson.
  • Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America, by Jim P. Brock and Kenn Kaufman.
  • Family Nymphalidae - Brush-Footed Butterflies, Accessed online August 20, 2011.
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Your Citation
Hadley, Debbie. "Brush-Footed Butterflies, Family Nymphalidae." ThoughtCo, Jan. 19, 2016, Hadley, Debbie. (2016, January 19). Brush-Footed Butterflies, Family Nymphalidae. Retrieved from Hadley, Debbie. "Brush-Footed Butterflies, Family Nymphalidae." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 15, 2017).