Insects form the largest group within the phylum arthropoda. In general, insects have a chitinous exoskeleton, a body that has 3 distinct segments (head, thorax and abdomen), three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes and one pair of antennae. Butterflies belong to the Order Lepidoptera (Scaled wings) and are classified as insects.
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Fundamentally, this means that all butterflies have six legs. However, even though all six legs are present, the forelegs of some butterfly species have evolved and adapted to perform a totally different function from their original purpose of locomotion (walking). In particular, the species in the family Nymphalidae or often referred to as "Brushfoot" butterflies, have their forelegs reduced to such an extent that they become imperfect and brush-like (hence the name brushfoot) and useless for walking.
A typical butterfly leg has the following five parts, in sequence, from where the leg is attached to the thorax to the extremities (usually the tarsal claws) - coxa, trochanter, femur, tibia and tarsal segments. Butterflies have three pairs of legs - the forelegs (nearest to the head), the middle legs and the hind legs, each attached to a segment of the thorax.
Although each typical leg consists of the standard segmented parts, there is a wide variation of the legs across the butterfly families. This blog article takes a look at some of the differences of the butterfly species" legs from different families. The majority of the photos depicted here are cropped from a full frame DSLR sensor output and may not be as sharp or of high quality as expected.
All six legs are present in all the species of the Papilionidae family. A typical Papilionid has the longest legs (measured from coxa to tarsus) compared to the species in other families. The femur of the Papilionid"s leg appears more "muscular" compared to species of other families. The tarsal segments are typically long and when a Papilionid butterfly puddles or uses its legs to hold onto a flower as it feeds, the body of the butterfly is held high and some distance away from the food source.
Most Papiliond species have tibia spurs and the femur, tibia and tarsal segments may be covered with small spiny hairs which aid in holding on to perches and help in gripping onto flowers as the butterfly feeds. The tarsal claws are prominent on all the legs and also help to hold on to branches, leaves and any other perch that the butterfly is resting on.
All Pieridae species have six legs fully developed and functional. Many of the species usually have their legs concolourous with the butterflies" abdomen or wings. There is usually a darker longitudinal stripe throughout the length of the leg. Compared to the Papilionidae, the Pierids have shorter legs. The femur is usually covered with short and soft hairs.
The Nymphalidae family (or Brushfoots) are unique in that the forelegs of the butterfly species in this family are under-developed and reduced to mere tufts of hair. These "legs" are therefore are useless and unfunctional. Most of the time, these forelegs cannot be seen, whilst the middle and hindlegs are well developed and robust. The butterfly species in this family appear to have only 4 legs.
The Riodinids are unique in that only the females have six fully developed legs. In the males, the forelegs are reduced to tufts of hair like in the Nymphalidae and these legs are not functional. However, the females tend to fold their forelegs tightly to the front of the thorax and appear to also have only 4 legs to stand on.
The Skippers have all six legs fully developed. In many of the species, the femur is exceptionally hairy and covered with thick long hairs, giving this segment of the leg a rather thick and muscular appearance. In some species, the hairs extend to the next segment, the tibia. The tibia spurs are thick and prominent. On the hind legs, there is usually an additional pair of tibia spurs in a number of species.
Posted byCommanderat8:52 AM
Very interesting read...Unknownsaid...
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Hello. Thank you for your blog. It helps me a lot. I have a question.I realised one of my striped albatross couldn't fly well. I think I saw it only had five legs if I'm not mistaken.. I remember I counted the leg thrice.. But not sure.. (?)Is that possible for butterflies to have five legs?KarenRycheckMosaicssaid...
I'm trying to create a mosaic of a gulf fritillary (USA I believe). Can you tell me what sort of legs it has please? I am no scientist, but want to be accurate as the recipient of this gift knows her butterflies!