6 junio, 2024

Butterfly Life Cycle: Phases and Characteristics (with Pictures)

He butterfly life cycle it begins when the female butterfly lays the eggs and ends with the death of the butterfly, which can live for approximately 30 days. Butterflies are the insects that we usually recognize by the striking colors and patterns on their showy wings.

From the time they are born until they become the beautiful insects we see hanging around in gardens, butterflies go through 4 stages: an egg, a larva or caterpillar, a pupa, and the adult.

Butterflies belong to the group of invertebrates, specifically to the Arthropoda phylum and to the Hexapoda subphylum, which includes all arthropods that have 6 legs. Among the hexapods, butterflies are part of the Insecta class, one of the most important in the group, and to the Lepidoptera order.

There are more than 120,000 species of Lepidoptera and these insects are characterized, among many things, by their two pairs of colorful wings, the long proboscis they use to suck nectar when they feed on flowers, and by the small scales that cover their head, body, legs and wings.


Most insect organisms have relatively complex life cycles that involve the transition between the four important phases that we mentioned a moment ago: the egg, the larva (caterpillar), the pupa (chrysalis), and the pupa (chrysalis). that of the adult

We know this transition as metamorphosis, which means «shape change», and it is a very important biological phenomenon for these and other organisms such as amphibians, for example, by which organisms develop «in stages».

Both in butterflies and in other insects, metamorphosis allows us to separate three different physiological processes during the life cycle: growth, transformation and reproduction.

The tiny embryo in the egg grows to become the caterpillar which, feeding vigorously, will also grow to form the pupa. Inside the pupa, the caterpillar transforms into the colorful adult that we see flying among the flowers, which is the one that has the ability to reproduce.

Each butterfly species has eggs, caterpillars, pupae, and adults with very different characteristics, habits, and behaviors, making each emergence of an adult a surprise to the untrained eyes of casual observers.

The phases of the butterfly life cycle

The metamorphosis of butterflies is also known as complete metamorphosis or holometabolous metamorphosis and is characterized by the fact that the juveniles that emerge from the eggs are completely different from the adult stage, the opposite of what happens with incomplete metamorphosis, where the juveniles look like miniature adults. .

All insects with complete metamorphosis go through the 4 stages we have talked about: egg, larva, pupa and adult.

1 egg

The butterfly life cycle begins with a female laying her eggs somewhere, usually on the underside of leaves or on the stems of a plant. The eggs are generally very small and can have different textures, colors and structures depending on the species.

For a time, the embryos inside the eggs grow, with which the larvae develop, which will later hatch and leave these structures.

The number of eggs that a female lays can vary from a few hundred to thousands, which can be all together in a kind of «mass» covered with a fragment of the mother’s body, or they can be widely scattered among themselves.

The time it takes for the larvae to «emerge» from the eggs also varies greatly depending on the species being considered, being able to take a few weeks or even entire seasons or seasons (winter, spring, summer, autumn).

2- Caterpillar or larva

After the necessary time for their development has elapsed and the environmental and physiological conditions are favourable, the caterpillars leave the eggs and discover the plant world that surrounds them.

In butterflies and other insects we also know caterpillars as larvae and, like adults, they often have striking shapes and color patterns on the thin skin that covers them.

In zoology, the term «larva» is used to define the immature stages of any invertebrate animal, although some entomologists (zoologists dedicated to the study of insects) only use it to refer to young insects that in their life cycle spend then through a pupal stage.

Many authors consider that caterpillars are feeding «systems» or «machines», since it is the most energetically demanding phase of development, since it is where most of the growth occurs and, therefore, where they need to feed the most (they have an insatiable appetite).

Does a caterpillar look like a butterfly?

What is surprising about the process of complete metamorphosis in insects, and particularly in butterflies, is perhaps how different the egg, caterpillar, and pupa are from the adult individual.

Therefore, the answer to this question is no, a caterpillar does not (to the naked eye) look like an adult butterfly:

– The caterpillars do not have a suction apparatus, but feed using a chewing apparatus with which they crush the leaves they feed on before digesting them.

– Caterpillars don’t have wings, but butterflies do.

– Caterpillars have 3 pairs of true legs and an additional 5 pairs of “pro-legs” that they later lose.

– Caterpillars have a hairy cover that protects them from potential predators, but this cuticle is thin and very flexible.

– Caterpillars can shed their cuticle between 4 and 5 times during their growth and while becoming a pupa; the molting process of caterpillars is known as ecdysis.

– Caterpillars can increase up to 100 times their size in relation to the size they were when they just left the egg.

The butterflies remain as caterpillars for between 2 and 5 weeks and this phase of metamorphosis is one of the most delicate, as it is the one with the highest mortality rate, either due to environmental conditions or because they are prey to different predators.

We must also mention that as they grow and move around the plants on which they feed, the larvae continually produce threads of a kind of silk-like material, with which they more easily adhere to surfaces.

Many caterpillars also use the silk they produce to “build” nests or dens to protect themselves from environmental adversities or their predators, which they also use as a final guard site before becoming a pupa.

3- Pupa

When the larva or caterpillar fully matures, it pupates and during this process the entire internal anatomy of the caterpillar is «destroyed» and «built» again, which is tightly controlled by various internal factors.

The pupa is the last phase of metamorphosis in holometabolous insects and many authors establish that the average residence time of the pupa until the emergence of the adult is a couple of weeks (this can vary between species and even between generations of the same species). species).

If the environmental conditions are not favourable, some species of butterflies can survive for more than two years until they «produce» the adults.

A pupa is a kind of «vessel», within which the amazing physical transformation from a caterpillar to a winged butterfly occurs. We can find pupae suspended (hanging) from branches of trees or shrubs, in rolled leaves, or in burrows or holes under the ground (subterranean).

It is a resting phase, during which the insect does not feed or increase significantly in size.

Are all pupae the same?

No, the shape and appearance of the pupae, as well as their structure, varies depending not only on the type of insect but also on the species.

Most of the pupae are covered by the silk produced by the larval phase (the caterpillar) and some species also include the hairs of the cuticle of the larvae, processed (chewed) remains of plant material, secretions or waste products, etc. .

4- Adult

Adult individuals are formed during the pupal phase and can remain inside these structures for as long as necessary for the environmental conditions to be adequate. To hatch, many species of butterflies have special structures to cut it.

Once released, the adults are able to hang by their legs with their heads pointing towards the ground, thereby propelling body fluids towards the thoracic area, which when contracted allows blood to be pumped towards the wings, which are not expanded.

When the wings receive blood, they take on the size and shape of the wings of an adult butterfly, which can fly within a few minutes after this happens (or it can take a couple of hours).

Adult butterflies are the reproductive phase of the life cycle of these beautiful insects. Due to their ability to move through the air, males and females meet to copulate (sexual reproduction) and disperse to new places.

Adult butterflies feed mainly on nectar and other liquids found mainly on plants, which contrasts significantly with the feeding behavior of the larvae, which are leaf-eaters.

An adult butterfly can live up to a month, but that varies considerably depending on multiple factors.

In this video you can see how the caterpillar forms the chrysalis and the exit of the butterfly:



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Cinici, A. (2013). From caterpillar to butterfly: a window for looking into students’ ideas about life cycle and life forms of insects. Journal of Biological Education, 47(2), 84-95.
Culin, J. (2018). Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from www.britannica.com/animal/lepidopteran/Natural-history#ref894356
McKanic, A. (2019). Science. Retrieved June 26, 2020, from www.science.com/two-types-life-cycles-insects-8381025.html
Snodgrass, R.E. (1954). Insect metamorphosis. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections.

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