The Parts of a Butterfly

Butterflies and moths have similar anatomical features

Whether large (like a monarch butterfly) or small (like a spring azure), butterflies and moths share certain morphological features. The diagram highlights the basic common anatomy of an adult butterfly or moth. The sections, divided according to butterfly or moth parts, provide more specific descriptions of the various appendages of these beautiful insects. The parts are indicated by numbers, which correspond to the sections.

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Parts of a butterfly.

 Flickr user B_cool (CC license); modified by Debbie Hadley, WILD Jersey

The forewings are the anterior wings, which are attached to the mesothorax (the middle segment of the thorax—see section No. 2). Scent scales—modified wing scales on the forewing of male butterflies and moths—release pheromones, chemicals that attract females of the same species.

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Rhinopalpa polynice, the Wizard, mounted male butterfly, orange with dark scalloped wing margins, short hindwing tails, and spots on the hindwings.

Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images 

The posterior wings, attached to the metathorax (the last segment of the thorax), are called the hindwings. Hindwings are actually unnecessary for flight but essential for the execution of normal evasive flight in butterflies and moths, according to a 2008 paper by Benjamin Jantzen and Thomas Eisner, published in PNAS. Indeed, moths and butterflies can still fly, even if their hindwings are cut off, they say.

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Extreme Close up of a Tiger Mimic Butterfly (mechanitis_polymnia)

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The antennae are a pair of sensory appendages, used primarily for chemoreception, the process by which organisms respond to chemical stimuli in their environments that depends primarily on the senses of taste and smell. As with most other arthropods, butterflies and moths use their antennae to detect odors and tastes, wind speed and direction, heat, moisture, and touch. The antennae also help with balance and orientation. Interestingly, the antennae of a butterfly have rounded clubs on the ends; whereas, in moths, they are often thin, or even feathery.

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Close up of butterfly

 © Dan Wang/Getty Images

The head is the front body segment of the butterfly, notes the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the University of Kentucky in an article published by the university titled, "All About Butterflies." The university adds that the mouthparts, eyes, and antennae are located in the head. The butterfly or moth's almost spherical head is the location of its feeding and sensory structures, and it also contains its brain, two compound eyes, the proboscis, the pharynx (the start of the digestive system), and the point of attachment of its two antennae.

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Malachite Butterfly Extreme Close Up

Ger Bosma/Getty Images 

The second section of the butterfly or moth body, the thorax consists of three segments, fused together, says Paul Smart in "The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Butterfly World." Each segment has a pair of legs. Both pairs of wings also attach to the thorax. In between the segments are flexible areas that allow the butterfly to move, Smart notes, adding that all three parts of the body are covered in very small scales, which give the butterfly its color.

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One of the World most Beautiful Butterfly, Clipper Butterfly

 Jean-Philippe Tournut/Getty Images

The third section is the abdomen, which consists of 10 segments. The final three to four segments are modified to form the external genitalia. At the end of the abdomen are the reproductive organs, says Smart, explaining that in the male, there is a pair of claspers, which are used to hold on to the female during mating. In the female, the abdomen contains a tube made to lay eggs.

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Compound Eye


Tomekbudujedomek/Getty Images 

The butterfly and moth's large eye, also called a compound or third eye, senses light and images. The compound eye is a collection of thousands of ommatidia, each of which acts as a single lens of the eye. Ommatidia work together to enable the butterfly to see what's around it. Some insects may have just a few ommatidia in each eye, while butterflies and moths, as noted, have thousands.

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Border butterfly, Iguazu falls

 Mario Cugini/Getty Images

The butterfly or moth's collection of mouthparts, the proboscis, is modified for drinking, curls up when not in use, and extends like a drinking straw when it feeds. The proboscis is actually made up of two hollow tubes, notes Smart, adding that the butterfly (or moth) can uncoil its proboscis when it wants to feed.

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Red Admiral Butterfly Macro

 by Simon Gakhar/Getty Images

The first pair of legs, attached to the prothorax, is called the forelegs. The butterfly actually has six jointed legs, which, in turn, have six parts, the coxa, femur, trochanter, tibia, pretarsus, and tarsus, says The Follis Report. The legs of a butterfly have chemoreceptors on its tarsal segments. This helps them to smell and taste.

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Machaonas (Papilio Machaon) Swallowtail Butterfly

 By Eve Livesey/Getty Images

The middle pair of legs, attached to the mesothorax, are the midlegs. Butterflies can locate food sources by simply using their chemoreceptors on their legs, says The Follis Report, adding:

"Female butterflies can identify if a plant is appropriate to lay eggs upon by the chemical which is released from the plant after drumming their legs on the surface of the leaf. These chemoreceptors pick up on the chemicals."
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Hind Leg

European Map

 Copyright (C) Arto Hakola. All rights reserverd./Getty Images

The last pair of legs, attached to the metathorax, are the hind legs. The middle and hind legs are the pairs that are made for walking, according to The Butterfly Zone, a website devoted entirely to describing and analyzing the beautiful insects. The website says that the muscles of the thorax control the wings and legs.