Butterfly Anatomy

Part of the The Butterfly Conservatory exhibition.

Butterfly alights on a leaf. R. Mickens/© AMNH

Butterfly wings are made of hardened membrane, strengthened by veins and covered by tiny scales. Each scale is a single color. The intricate designs of butterfly wings are produced by thousands of scales, arrayed in complex patterns and overlapping one another like shingles on a roof.

The specialized mouth parts of the adult butterfly are unusual. Most insects chew their food with large, jawlike mandibles, but butterflies consume only liquids, sucking up their food through the proboscis (pro-BOSS-iss), a tube that resembles a drinking straw. In some species, a very long proboscis—up to one and a half times the body length—allows the butterfly to probe deep into flowers for nectar.

A butterfly finds food by using its large compound eyes—which are sensitive to light, movement, color, and patterns—as well as its antennae. The antennae may look like "feelers," but they have chemical receptors and are used primarily for smelling.