Both formal and informal approaches apply when anyone explains the types of butterflies native to the world’s fields, forests and residential areas. Informally, butterfly species present themselves as the colorful, winged insects associated with flowers and warm, sunny days.
Formal butterfly discussions start by recognizing that butterflies and moths belong to the larger Lepidoptera order. It continues by organizing butterflies into families, subfamilies, genera and species based on a set of shared physical characteristics such as wing color or shape.
The global butterfly population currently consists of six families, with experts identifying anywhere between fifteen to nineteen thousand different species. Butterfly diversity reaches its high in the area from Mexico to the southern tip of South America.
This GreenSplain guide provides pictures and descriptions of species from each family to help answer some basic butterfly identification questions.
The brush-footed butterflies (Nymphalidae) constitute the largest butterfly family, accounting for approximately thirty percent of all North American butterfly species. Formally divided into eleven subfamilies, their common names such as admirals, fritillaries, checkerspots, ladies, crescents, commas and tortoiseshells ring a familiar note for most butterfly enthusiasts.
Brushfoot butterflies populate gardens across the United States. Identifying them often starts by noticing the orange wing color. The picture at the top of the page, for example, shows the California Tortoiseshell, a common western species. From wing color, the identification process proceeds by closely examining the wing patterns necessary for proper identification. Monarch Butterflies, Queens and Soldiers, for example, similar looking species in the danaus genus can be distinguished from each other by their wing patterns.
The picture shows a Mourning Cloak with its brown and yellow fringed wing color, making it one of the families color anomolies. Press the button and discover the basic wing patterns associated with all the brushfoot butterfly subfamilies.
Lycaenidae: Gossamer-wing Butterflies
Gossamer-wing butterflies, generally small in size, initially get grouped according to both color and wing appendages. Lycanidae subfamilies, for example, go by the common names, blues, coppers and hairstreaks.
Blue butterflies (Polyommatinae), for example, share the physical characteristic of males having blue wings. Wing color of females differs from blue to brown, depending on the species.
Often identification of blue butterflies begins with a close examination of the patterns present on the underside of the wings. Click on the blue butterflies link to view a video that shows a handful of blue butterfly species with the wings folded, highlighting those patterns.
The thin, tail looking appendage on the bottom of hairstreak butterfly wings, on the other hand, usually serves as the physical characteristic uniting that subfamily. Of course, the tail looking appendage for hairstreaks represents one rule of thumb. The colorful green hairstreak butterfly in the video Copper butterflies tend to have brown to copper shaded wings.
Pieridae: Whites and Sulphur Butterflies
The white and sulphur (yellow) butterflies (family Pieridae) easily spotted in the field, initially get identified and sorted into the family on account of their wing color.
One of the most common white butterflies present in North American yards and gardens, the Cabbage White butterfly, raises young that feed on garden vegetables.
Common names for Pieridae species include marbles, orangetips, yellows and dogfaces. The approximately seventy documented species makes it one of the smaller butterfly families in terms of species diversity.
The skippers (family Hesperiidae), the small brownish butterflies, also get characterized by their relatively large eyes and closed wings at rest. Spreadwing skippers expand on that starting point. Still small and often with brown color wings, they tend to rest with wings open.
Sometimes mistaken for moths, their clubbed antennae help identify it as a butterfly. Common names for Hesperiidae species include longtails, flashers, cloudywings, flats, sootywings, duskywings and skipperlings.
Swallowtail butterflies (family Papilionidae) the dominant Papilionidae subfamily, can often be recognized by their larger than average size and the presences of extended appendages (tails) at the bottom of their wings.
Many, but not all swallowtail butterflies have black or yellow patterned wings. Species diversity reaches it highest in the South.
Because the Riodinidae family species, commonly called mmetalmarks, are primarily a tropical family, many butterfly fans tends to forget they exist. However, a small group of species populate areas along southern North America, especially the Southwest.