All the Ways Butterflies Use Color to Stay Alive

Illustration for article titled All the Ways Butterflies Use Color to Stay Alive

We all know that camouflage is an important tool in the evolutionary toolbox. But it's only one of the ways that butterflies and caterpillars use color to keep themselves safe.


Image credit: First Butterfly In May by tdlucas5000/flickr/CC BY 2.0

Liz Langley at National Geographic has an article on the bright colors used by various species of butterflies. For the giant swallowtail, the caterpillar looks like bird droppings at its smallest and a small snake at its biggest, both acting to discourage predators.


When the caterpillars enter their chrysalis, there's more color use at work. The giant swallowtail and the monarch butterfly both have chrysalises that blend in with the trees on which the hang. The paper kite butterfly doesn't go with the ever popular camouflage. Instead, the chrysalis is a shiny gold. The shine makes it hard to detect against "complicated backgrounds."

When the creatures emerge from the chrysalis, color is used again. The monarch's bright orange color signals that it's toxic to predators, while the viceroy mimics the monarch for safety. Other butterflies don't use bright colors to warn off predators, but to distract mates. And the large "eyespots" on some species are used to startle and confuse predators.

Read more about butterfly colors and patterns at National Geographic, including the difference between true pigment and structural color and how diet influences how these creatures look.

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Here is sunny South Florida we have butterflies all year round. Planting butterfly gardens is extremely easy to do. Plant a leafy milkweed plant and within a few weeks it will be a bunch of green sticks shooting out of the ground covered in Monarch caterpillars. Monarch chrysalis are very pretty, they get a beautiful gold ring about a third of the way from the top.