What is the difference between a
Butterfly and a Moth?
Don Herbison-Evans,
Stella Crossley

Belenois java


Thallarcha albicollis


A healthy Caterpillar can turn either into a Moth or a Butterfly depending on its species.
Butterflies and moths are all member of the Insect order LEPIDOPTERA, which is divided into about 100 families.
In Australia, the Butterflies are members of only five of these families.
The members of the other families are all called Moths.

In Australia, in the five Butterfly families, there are about 400 species of Butterflies.
In Australia, in the other LEPIDOPTERA families, there are estimated to be about 20,000 species of Moths.

The species in the Butterfly families have some general features in common which distinguish them from species in the Moth families:

  • Adult Butterflies fly in the daytime.
    Most adult Moths fly at night.

  • Butterflies have filamentary antenna with a knob on the end.
    Most Moths, especially the males, have feathery antennae.

  • Most Butterflies fold their wings up vertically above the body when at rest.
    Most Moths fold them over like a tent shape.

  • Butterfly species have a naked pupa.
    Most Moth species protect their pupa by spinning a silk cocoon around it.
  • Most of the Caterpillars which we have found are the larvae of moths. Moths far outnumber butterflies both in numbers and species. In Australia, there are over 10,000 named species of moths compared with only about 400 species of butterflies. Added to this, in Australia, it is estimated that another 10,000 species moths have yet to be studied and named, whereas very few butterfly species remain to be discovered.

    The common names of many moths are derived from the behaviour and appearance of their caterpillars. This situation is unlike that for butterflies, for which the common names are usually derived from the adult forms. The difference stems from the fact that common names are given by ordinary people and are handed down by generations. Butterflies fly mainly by day, so ordinary people mainly see the adults, whereas moth adults fly mainly at night. But moth caterpillars are often made conspicuous by the damage they do to plants, as the caterpillars of many moth species are important agricultural pests. Thus the stage of moth development that is most often encountered by ordinary people by day is the caterpillar.

    Very few Australian moths have English common names, as there have been only 200 years or so of English settlement in Australia. Even the moth families are usually referred to in Australia by derivatives of their scientific names. The situation is very different from that in Europe and America where most common moth species have common names. In these pages, we give many of the European and American names out of deference to overseas visitors to our pages.


    Australian Butterflies
    Australian Moths


    (updated 31 May 2010, 25 January 2014, 6 January 2015, 14 June 2018)