- Butterflies belong to the same order of insects as moths, Lepidoptera
- Antarctica is the only continent in the world where butterflies cannot survive.
- Overwintering is one of two ways butterflies spend their coldest months.
- Some butterflies migrate to warmer climates to avoid the low temperatures of winter.
Dressed in vibrant and beautiful colors, butterflies are among the most diverse animals on Earth. Sharing the same insect order Lepidoptera as moths, they seem to be found almost everywhere. In all, there are nearly 20,000 documented species in the wild. Some of the most spectacular and colorful animals inhabit the depths of the rainforest, but they come in so many different variations that each species seems to have adapted itself to the environmental conditions in which it evolved. This article will provide some fascinating details about butterfly habitats and how they make their homes in the wild.
Where in the world are there butterflies?
The short answer to this question is that butterflies live on every continent in the world except Antarctica. They are varied and adapted to local conditions, but they are unevenly distributed. Because butterflies depend on warm climates to survive, they are overwhelmingly found in Central and South America, Africa, South Asia and Australia. Some species also specialize in temperate and cold climates; they can be found almost north to arctic during summer. Globalization and the rise of fast travel have benefited some species (while harmed others). Monarch butterflies, once found only in the Americas, have also spread to parts of Spain, Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the Asia-Pacific.
What habitats do butterflies prefer?
Butterflies have adapted to almost any habitat and niche imaginable, except for the most extreme cold. They generally prefer warm, open glades or woods with just enough vegetation to provide a home and food source; many can also be found in tropical rainforests and temperate forests. Other possible locations include barren deserts, swampy wetlands, long stretches of coast, and even massive mountaintops over 20,000 feet high. Butterflies don’t usually fly very far from their birthplaces unless migrating.
Where do butterflies live in winter?
The answer to this question depends on the species. Because butterfly physiology (as mentioned earlier) relies heavily on external heat sources for survival, butterfly species that live near the equator and in tropical rainforests tend to stay in the same place for most of the year. These warm-climate species do have ways of coping with changing wet and dry seasons, but they don’t migrate long distances and remain active almost year-round.
Butterflies have a harder time surviving in cold or temperate regions where temperatures drop below freezing for at least part of the winter. When this happens, they have two options for survival: either enter a long period of dormancy (not quite the same as hibernation), or head to warmer climates to wait out the cold. The first strategy is called overwintering. Butterflies can overwinter at any stage of their life: egg, larva, pupa or adult. The larval stage is the most common overwintering time, simply because butterflies spend so much time in this stage. The pupa is also a common overwintering stage, as they can remain dormant and protected inside the cocoon, but they are much less likely to overwinter in the egg or adult stages. Some species can overwinter in multiple stages of their life, often combining the larval and pupal stages into one season.
As winter daylight begins to shorten, these butterflies find a safe tree hollow, man-made structure or other crevice where they can easily survive the freezing temperatures of their surroundings. They then drastically reduce their activity levels to avoid expending unnecessary energy and live off the fat reserves they gain from summer and fall. This is similar to the state of long sleep (although it technically doesn’t fit the definition of hibernation).
Migration is a less common strategy than overwintering, as many adults die before winter even begins. The process itself also poses great difficulties and dangers for the butterflies, so the species must be highly adapted to make the journey. The first challenge is to navigate successfully. They must know instinctively where to travel, even if they have never traveled before. The butterflies seem to use the position of the sun, against the internal rhythms of their biological clocks (so they know the time of day), to find the right direction. To locate the sun, they appear to rely on ultraviolet and polarized light far beyond the capabilities of normal human vision to navigate long-distance routes, even in cloudy conditions.
Monarch butterflies are perhaps the most famous of all migratory species, and one of the few that, like birds, migrate regularly every year. They seem to instinctively travel thousands of miles south to California and Mexico, roosting in pine, cedar and fir trees along the way at night. When perched, they congregate, sometimes in the millions. They then make the reverse journey to their normal breeding grounds in the spring.
However, in terms of sheer migration length, nothing beats the nabi, which makes long-term migrations between Africa and Europe over a period of time (migration doesn’t happen every year, probably to some extent related to the ever-changing environmental conditions). A British painted lady made the 9,000-mile journey, the longest on record. This migration takes so long that several generations will live and die before it is complete.
What plants do butterflies like?
The answer to this question depends on the life stage of the butterfly in the wild. Caterpillars spend the first months or years of their lives exclusively on a particular host plant, feeding during the day and sleeping at night until they are large enough to become adults. For example, monarch butterfly larvae prefer any milkweed plant as a host, including California milkweed, Arizona milkweed, common milkweed, and many other species. Because milkweed is so prevalent, there is little shortage of food for monarch butterfly larvae. On the other hand, European peacock butterflies will look for nettles, small nettles or hops to lay their eggs on.
Some species are so specialized that they cannot survive anywhere but their host plants. For example, the cana blue butterfly is completely dependent on the oak savannah for survival. The species is extinct in parts of Canada, where its habitat has been completely lost. Other species will spend part of their lives as larvae in underground burrows or somewhere near the surface. Some of these butterflies have a unique symbiotic relationship in which the ants help them survive and, in exchange, the butterflies provide the ants with sweet honeydew.
When the caterpillar is fully grown, it wraps itself in a cocoon and becomes a chrysalis. These pupae usually hang from tree branches, hide under leaves, or burrow underground near their birthplace. Once it emerges from the cocoon, the adult is fully capable of flight, opening up a wider range of travel.
At this stage of its life, the butterfly is very good at feeding on certain nectar or pollen with its long, curly proboscis (although some short-lived adults don’t eat at all until they reproduce and die). Wings allow them to be highly maneuverable in order to move from flower to flower in search of food. They tend to do most of their feeding during the day, then hang upside down on leaves and branches at night, hiding among the foliage to sleep. In order to forage throughout their migration routes, migratory species tend to have the widest range of food sources.
The Symbolism of Butterflies
While seeing a beautiful butterfly fly from flower to flower is exciting, for many people seeing it has a deeper meaning. In many cultures from the present to the distant past, butterflies represent the souls of the departed. Butterfly is “psyche” in ancient Greek, meaning “soul,” and it also appears on Roman coins as a symbol of the soul. The Aztecs believed that the happy dead in the form of butterflies would visit their relatives to reassure them that all was well. Mexico, Russia, Ireland, Spain and Germany all have legends linking butterflies to spirits. In the imagery of the Garden of Eden, Adam’s soul is symbolized as a butterfly, or painted with the wings of a butterfly.
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I am broadly interested in how human activities influence the ability of wildlife to persist in the modified environments that we create.
Specifically, my research investigates how the configuration and composition of landscapes influence the movement and population dynamics of forest birds. Both natural and human-derived fragmenting of habitat can influence where birds settle, how they access the resources they need to survive and reproduce, and these factors in turn affect population demographics. Most recently, I have been studying the ability of individuals to move through and utilize forested areas which have been modified through timber harvest as they seek out resources for the breeding and postfledging phases. As well I am working in collaboration with Parks Canada scientists to examine in the influence of high density moose populations on forest bird communities in Gros Morne National Park. Many of my projects are conducted in collaboration or consultation with representatives of industry and government agencies, seeking to improve the management and sustainability of natural resource extraction.