Mistaken Identities: Moths vs. Butterflies

In this installment of our Mistaken Identities series, we dive into the differences between moths and butterflies.

  • Animals

Did you know that the bodies and wings of both moths and butterflies are covered in tiny overlapping scales, which are actually modified hairs? This helps to explain the Greek origin of the name of their scientific order, Lepidoptera (lepis meaning scale and pteron meaning wing). Both of these winged insects are also holometabolous—which means they undergo a complete metamorphosis during their life cycles. Moths and butterflies both serve important roles as pollinators and as vital food sources for a number of other animals; for many bird species, moth and butterfly caterpillars are the primary food they feed their young.

Despite these similarities that moths and butterflies share, there are many differences that set them apart.

Other Differences

Different wings, antennae and body shapes are a few of the more visually apparent differences between moths and butterflies—but they're certainly not the only ones.


Butterflies are typically larger than moths—although there are exceptions. Take the atlas moth, for example; this species, native to China, India, Malaysia and Indonesia, has a wingspan that can reach a whopping 10 inches.

Diurnal vs. Nocturnal

Butterflies are generally diurnal, which means they're active during the day. Moths are typically nocturnal and active at night. There are notable exceptions to this general rule, too; take hummingbird moths as an example. These moths (which resemble hummingbirds, as their name suggests) are active during the day and can commonly be seen throughout their range hovering near flowers, using their long, tongue-like projections to extract nectar.


The forewings and hind wings of moths are connected by a frenulum, a small, bristle-like structure that allows these wings to move together during flight. Butterfly wings have no frenulum.

Cocoon vs. Chrysalis

The caterpillars of many—but not all—species of moth spin silk thread to make cocoons, which provide protection in the insect's pupae stage. These cocoons are formed underground, in leaf litter, or attached to tree bark or other plants.

Butterfly caterpillars don't spin cocoons; instead, they make a hard, smooth outer shell, called a chrysalis, to protect themselves in the pupae stage. Chrysalises are often found attached to plant stems, as well as underground and in leaf litter.

Overhead View of a Chickweed Geometer Moth with Its Wings Flat on a Flower

Number of Species

When it comes to number of species, moths easily take the cake. About 160,000 species of moths can be found around the globe, compared to about 17,500 species of butterflies.

Mistaken Identities More in This Series

Animals Mistaken Identities: Loggerhead vs. Green Sea Turtles

Animals Mistaken Identities: Frogs vs. Toads

Animals Mistaken Identities: Lizards vs. Salamanders

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