A Guide to the Butterfly Life Cycle

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The winged insects of the order Lepidoptera, including both butterflies and moths, are famous for the dramatic transformation—called metamorphosis—that takes place between the larval stage and adulthood.

 


A butterfly larva first emerges from its egg as a caterpillar, chewing its way out of its protective shell. It keeps munching large quantities of leaves, growing and shedding its skin as it outgrows it.

Once it reaches full size, the caterpillar finds a good place to anchor itself, then molts one last time to reveal a chrysalis, or pupa. It’s inside the chrysalis where the most dramatic transformation takes place.

 

Butterfly pupae hang from a ledge in various stages of metamorphosis.

© AMNH


In this stage, which takes anywhere from two weeks to several months, the insect’s tissues rearrange to form the features of an adult butterfly, including wings and antennae. 

 

Detail of a butterfly with wings folded together, sitting on a leaf.

© AMNH/D. Finnin


Finally, the adult butterfly breaks through its chrysalis case fully-formed, though its wings are generally wet and scrunched. Once the butterfly has a chance to dry and expand its shriveled wings by pumping them full of blood, it’s off to find a mate—and to begin the life cycle anew. 

To see more than 500 live butterflies—and to examine chrysalises up close—visit The Butterfly Conservatory, opening Saturday, October 7.