Glossary of Terms

This is the hind segment of the butterfly which contains the digestive and reproductive organs. In the female, the ovipositor is found at the end of the abdomen. In the male, the claspers are found at the end of the abdomen. Both of these structures represent the end of the reproductive system for the two sexes.

One of the four stages of a butterfly's life cycle, the adult stage is the flying stage of it's life. In this stage the butterfly will not grow in size, as it is simply concerned about reproducing and (in the case of the female) laying the eggs. See also student/teacher guide.

Is the scientific name for the penis of the adult male butterfly.

These are special types of scales found only in male adult butterflies. It is unknown how important a role these scales play in the sexual behavior of butterflies, and whether or not they emit pheremones used for attracting the females.

All butterflies are equipped with two antennae which extend from their head. These two structures have a number of different purposes, including: 1) Sensory organs for the females in detecting their hostplants, and for males in detecting the pheremones which the females emit. 2) Balancing mechanisms in flight if part or all of a wing is missing.

This term refers to a measurement of the number of species in a given area. Sometimes this is a general measurement in terms of all species, whereas other times it is focused on a particular group of organisms, such as plants. One example could include just butterflies: since 5% of the world's butterflies are found in Costa Rica, it could be said that the country has a very high biodiversity of butterfly species.

A n insect belonging to the order Lepidoptera. As an insect, it retains the two main characteristics of all insects: 6 legs, and three body segments. Butterflies are differenciated from the moths by having a chrysalis without silk, whereas the moths produce what we call a cocoon with silk.

A thick and durable substance which surrounds and encloses the eggs of all species within the order Lepidoptera. With some eggs this substance is smooth whereas with others it is decorated with symmetrical art-like features. This substance is often the first food that the newly emerged larva will have before beginning to eat its host plant.

Is the specific type of pupae which is produced by a butterfly. Different from the cocoon of a moth, a chrysalis is not covered in silk. Chryaslids of butterflies come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and can often be observed moving and "twitching" when disturbed. See also student/teacher guide.

Are structures found in pairs at the end of the abdomen in an adult male butterfly. These structures are used as the male is coupling with the female, and "clasping" the end of the abdomen of the female and allowing him to remain attached throughout the coupling process.

Is the pupa of moth. Different from the chrysalis of of butterfly which lacks silk, a cocoon is produced only by moths and is formed when the larva spins itself into a silk enclosure. There is a common misconception that butterflies produce cocoons, when they in fact produce chrysalids. (see above)

Is the term used to describe the mating process in butterflies. While coupling, the male and female face in opposite directions with abdomens attached. Since the female is larger and stronger than the male, when disturbed while coupling the female will actually carry the male in flight as he is still attached.

Is a small piece of silk that the larva uses to hang itself in prepupating and throughout the pupa stage. With this silk and small hooks used to attach the last pseudolegs to to branch or plant, the larva begins the process of transformation into the adult.

Defense Mechanism
This is a general term to describe different characteristics that organisms use to protect themselves from their predators. In the case of butterflies, defense mecahnisms are ubiquitous as they need to defend themselves from the very long list of organisms that call butterflies "food". See also student/teacher guide.

Destruction of Habitat
Is a very important concept which can explain why populations of organisms in certain areas of the world are declining (or increasing). All organisms have habitats that they depend upon for survival, some being specific and some very general in these requirements. Habitats provide the resources for the organism to live: food, shelter, etc.. As habitats are lost, so are the organisms that inhabit them. Therefore, in order to protect butterflies or any other wildlife, we must work towards protecting their habitat.

The process of the adult butterfly emerging from the pupa. This is also commonly refered to as emergence.

Is the study of organisms and their habitats. As there are almost always complex relationships between many organisms in their habitats, the study of ecology most often involves a wide perspective across many levels of the food chain.

This is the "first" stage in the life cycle of a butterfly, after the adult and before the larva. The length of time of this stage is usually around seven to ten days, after which it will emerge into a first instar larvae.

Does not occur in butterflies until the female deposites her eggs on the host plant. The female stores the sperm of the male in a "sac" in her abdomen, thus allowing her the decision of when to fertilize and when to lay eggs as a result.

Food Pyramid
This concept of a pyramid of consumers in an ecosystem is very useful in understanding how an organism fits into a community as a whole. For example, bears and other large mammals are typically at the very top of the food pyramid since they do not have any natural predators (except humans). On the contrary, butterflies feed on plants, making them primary consumers quite low in a food pyramid.

Butterflies have two sets of wings, and the forewings are those found closest to the head.

All organisms require natural areas in which to live. These areas are the "home" or habitat of the organism where it finds its food, shelter, etc.

Is the front section of the butterfly, representing one of the three main body parts found in all insects. In the head are found the: antennae, eyes, palpi, and proboscis

Butterflies have two sets of wings, and the hindwings are those found closest to the very end of the abdomen.

All butterflies have relationships with specific plants or groups of plants which the eggs are layed upon and the larvae use as food. These plants are called host plants. In some cases, a buterfly will have one single plant that it uses for this purpose. In others, a butterfly will not be quite as specific and may lay its eggs on a number of plants within a certain genus or family. See also student/teacher guide.

An insect is a cold-blooded organism that has six legs and three body segments. Insects as a group (class Insecta) are by far the largest group of organisms on earth.

larvae of butterflies typically go through six stages which are termed instars. These stages are punctuated by the molting or shedding of the larva's exoskeleton. As a larva is eating and growing, it typically molts five times, providing more room for growth.

This is the stage of the butterfly after the egg and before the pupa. On average, a larva lives from between three to four weeks, and is more or less and "eating machine". In additon to having the characteristics of an insect (six true legs and three body segments), larvae also have many pairs of pseudo-legs which are used to attach themselves to the host plant they are feeding on. Also, see instars above, and student/teacher guide.

Larval Cages
To a butterfly farmer, larval cages are an essential part of the breeding process. The larvae are kept in these cages through the three to four weeks that they live, and are protected much more than they would be in their natural habitats. The cages are cleaned every day and the growing larvae are provided with fresh cuttings of host plant as needed.

In the traditional Linnean classification system, the group Lepidoptera fit in as an "order" of organisms, and includes moths and butterflies. Literally translated in Greek, Lepidoptera means "wings of a scale". Also, see scales.

Because the larvae of butterflies are very different from the adults and they feed on plant material rather than liquids, mandibles are structures that allow the larvae to break bits of leaf material from the plant in order to ingest. These structures are found at the base of the head, next to the silk glands.

As an adult butterfly is developing inside the pupa, waste is created and stored as there is no where for it to leave the pupa. Upon emerging from the pupa as an adult, the butterfly exudes this waste in the form or a red-tinted liquid known as meconium.

On the surface of the egg, there is a small indention with a miniscule hole known as the micropyle. This hole allows for the developing embryo inside to respire.

Truly a fascinating subject in the world of butterflies, mimicry is the means by which different and unrelated species of butterflies have evolved to look very similar as a means of protection. In some cases, untoxic butterflies have evolved to appear like toxic butterflies in order to evade predators (Batesian mimicry). While in other cases, two toxic butterflies have evolved to appear very similar (Mullerian mimicry).

Mortality Rate
In their natural habitats, butterflies typically have mortality rates of 98%. This means that if 100 eggs were laid by a female, one might expect only 2 individuals to survive long enough to become reproductive and produce offspring themselves.

Sharing the order Lepidoptera with butterflies, moths have many characteristics that are similar to butterflies. However, there are a few distinct differences that separate them. Please see the student/teacher guide.

The diet of an adult butterfly is strictly liquids. While the types of liquids that butterflies use as food varies significantly, nectar is a very common source of food that is rich in sugar and therefore rich is energy.

Nectar Plant

In a typical flight area of a butterfly farm, there are two general categories of plants: host plants and nectar plants. Nectar plants are plants which flower abundantly and provide rich sources of food for the adults.

In the Neotropics there exist a number of butterfly species that have "eyespots" known as ocelli on their outer wings. These are thought to act as defense mechanisms in various ways. See also student/teacher guide.

This is a term that refers to the ability of organisms to detect chemicals in the air that with a "sense of smell". Butterflies use their antennae for this purpose.

The eyes of adult butterflies are made up of thousands of smaller hexagonal structures known as ommatidia, giving the butterfly very limited and segmented vision.

These are structures usually found in pairs on the head of the larvae. Sometimes these strucutres are visible and always present, while others are only protruded in the event of the larva defending itself.

This is the scientific term to describe the egg which the female lays. To learn more about this subject, see the Student/Teacher Guide.

When a female butterfly deposits eggs on the host plant we call this process oviposition. In addition, all female butterflies have a structure at the very end of their abdomen known as the ovipositor, which she will use to deposit her egg(s) on the plant.

Are structures found between the eyes of adult butterflies. Palpi are usually covered in scales and provide various means of cleaning the eyes.

Is a type of predator that kills its prey slowly. A typical parasite will lay its eggs inside the host (prey), thereby ensuring a constant supply of food for the developing larva.


Like viruses and diseases, pathogens represent a danger to butterflies in many stages. Pathogens are sicknesses which attack the butterfly, slowly weakening its ability to maintain its health. Larvae are particularly prone to attacks of pathogens.


This is a chemical attractant that the female adult butterfly will send out to attract the male butterfly for mating. Each butterfly and moth species has its own unique pheremone, thus ensuring that there will be no cross-breeding in populations.


Although adult butterflies are very frequently seen visiting the flowers of various nectar plants, in general they do not act as pollinators of flowers. Bees and other smaller insects are the "workhorses" of pollination, as they are smaller and can immerse parts of their bodies in the flower collecting and distributing pollen from flower to flower.

When describing the biology of an organism, a predator is something that feeds or preys upon that organism. In their natural habitats, butterflies have a very long list of of predators. See also student/teacher guide.

Is the stage directly following the larva and just before the pupa stage. As a larva finishes eating and growing, it begins the prepupa stage by looking for a place to hang itself and become a pupa.

Primary Consumer
This is an organism which is found near the very bottom of the food pyramid which cosumes plant material. Butterflies are primary consumers.


This is the feeding structure of the adult butterfly found in the head between the eyes. It is somewhat like a straw, used for ingesting the liquids which the adults feed on.


In addition to the six true legs that the larvae have, they also have a number of pairs of prolegs or psuedolegs found on the abdomen. These legs are not "true" legs, but function as legs as they serve in attaching the larva to its host plant while feeding.

This is the stage immediately following the prepupa stage and before the adult. It is the stage in which the butterfly is transforming its body parts into those which it will need as an adult. See also student/teacher guide.

These are tiny three-dimensional structures which are found on the wings of butterflies and moths. In some cases, the brilliant colors of Neotropical butterflies are created entirely by scales and the way in which they refract light differently.

Secondary Consumers

These are organisms in the food chain which feed on primary consumers. The predators of butterflies are all secondary consumers, as they do not feed directly on plants (the producers) themselves.

Silk Gland

This is a gland found near the mouth in the larvae, and is used for two purposes. The first is for the larva to create a trail of silk for which to walk on and attach itself to the leaf. Secondly, this silk is used to attach the last prolegs to the plant when hanging as a pupa.

Is a small sac found within the abdomen of the female adult butterfly. Here the female stores the sperm until she is ready to fertilize them and deposit them on the host plant.


These are small openings found in the thorax of both the larvae and the adult butterfly. These openings allow the air to enter into the respiratory system of the body.

Behavior many butterflies exhibit intense behavior to defend their territory. For the most part, it is the males which exhibit this behavior most readily, defending a certain area where they are protecting a mate or source of food. The Hamadryas, commonly known as the "cracker" butterfly, has the ability to make an audible cracking noise with the joints in its wings. The "cracker" uses this noise-making ability to chase off other males from the same and different species.

Is one of the three main body segments that butterflies share with all other insects. In the thorax of butterflies we can find the: six legs and four wings. See also student/teacher guide.

Many butterfly species in the world are toxic to the many predators which prey on them. Often the butterflies collect these toxins slowly from their hostplants as they are feeding in the larvae stage, and upon becoming adults are toxic to the predators. See also student/teacher guide.

Veins There are numerous veins which are found in wings of butterflies, running from the wing base out to the final margins. These veins are very important in the classification of different species of butterflies.