Question from Another: Caterpillars and Butterflies

I get some really great questions from museum visitors. A parent asked me the other week whether caterpillars are classified as a stage in the life of a butterfly, or classified as their own kind of insect.

I didn’t have the answer, but I was curious enough to look it up: Caterpillars are classified under Lepidoptera as the larval stage of butterflies.

It turns out that butterflies live on every continent except Antarctica, and the largest butterflies can be as large as 11 inches across. Most butterflies travel 5 to 10 mph, but skippers can keep pace with a car at 37 mph.

Here’s some more cool info from the San Diego Zoo website:

The caterpillar’s insides grow, but not its outside—when it gets too big for its skin, the covering  splits and is shed. A new exoskeleton lies underneath. A caterpillar sheds its skin 5 times, then becomes a pupa.

The last time the caterpillar sheds, a hard casing called a chrysalis forms around its body. Inside the chrysalis, big changes are happening. The pupa is growing six legs, a proboscis, antennae, and wings. After 10 to 15 days, the chrysalis breaks open and a butterfly emerges. At first its wings are wet and crinkled, but after about an hour, they are straight, dry, and strong enough for the butterfly to flutter away.

If you ever have a chance to go to a butterfly room – several science museums offer them, though it’s sometimes seasonal – it’s a really cool experience. Take a friend; the selfie photos of yourself with a butterfly on your shoulder tend to come out a bit awkward looking :-).

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