There are over 18,000 species of butterflies in the world. Humans have created butterfly families to help us study and understand all the thousands of butterflies in the world. Humans have identified 717 species north of Mexico. There are 250 species identified in the East Coast region of North America (Maine to Florida). It is believed there aren’t any new species of butterflies to identify in the East Coast region of North America.
Butterflies are found throughout North America but not all species are in every region. It is easiest to focus on those species common to you area. This cuts down on the ones you need to know. My policy always is, “Start in your own backyard and work your way outward”.
If you want a good, reliable list of species in your local area contact chapters of the North American Butterfly Association, local nature centers and parks. The North American Butterfly Association has great regional lists of common local butterflies and the best nectar and host plants for several regions. Be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the page to find the free pdfs.
Benefits of Learning Butterfly Families
Learning butterfly families helps with identification of species in several ways. By learning the key characteristics of a butterfly family, you can spot an unfamiliar species that belongs to the group. If you can place an unknown butterfly in a family, you will have a good start in identifying and unknown species.
Even with the usefulness of classifying butterflies into families, I am leery of classification in general. Many times plants or animals are put in categories and given a name and that’s where knowledge about a species ends.
I find humans also do this by categorizing fellow humans, putting them in a category and thinking they know everything about a person by what group they are thought to belong.
This isn’t true of plants and animals anymore than it is true of humans. Naming or categorizing isn’t all there is to know about a plant, animal or human.
For butterflies, we still need to know the life cycles, behavior, hostplants, overwintering and ecological niches that they fill. And this means we have to study live animals that are living freely in their native habitats and behaving normally.
This is a place for amateur naturalists and citizen scientists to make a contribution to our body of knowledge. Your backyard is a good place to start.
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The Family Classifications
The butterfly families classifications are based on body structure, wing vein patterns, color, what they eat and how the butterfly sits, perches or flies. Learning size, color and flight patterns of the different groups is a good way to tell the families apart. Butterflies can be identified by impression, just like birds. Birders call this the “jizz” of a bird. The technique is GISS – general impression, shape, and size.
The six families of butterflies include: Swallowtails, Whites and Sulphurs, Hairstreaks and Blues, Metalmarks, Nymphalids and the Skippers.
The Swallowtails Family – Papilionidae
Swallowtails (Papilionidae) – there are between 460 and 490 species of swallowtails in the world. There are twenty-eight species in North American and twelve in the East Coast region. These butterflies vary greatly in their appearance. They range in size from a wingspan of 2 1/8 to 5 ½ “ (54 – 40 mm).
All the caterpillars of this family have an osmeterium, a forked, foul-smelling organ behind the head, which the caterpillar can raise when it feels threatened. The osmeteriums are orange, red or yellow. I watched a Black Swallowtail caterpillar with an orange osmeterium in my garden.
Swallowtails fall into four general groups.
- Black Swallowtails (Papilio spp.) are black with spots or broad bands of yellow. Black Swallowtail caterpillars usually feed on plants in the carrot family.
- Giant Swallowtails (Heralides spp.) are brown with yellow markings. Giant Swallowtail caterpillars feed on citrus plants.
- Tiger Swallowtails (Pterourus spp.) are generally yellow with black stripes. The host plants for Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars are mostly deciduous trees.
- Pipevine Swallowtails (Battus spp.) are blackish. The caterpillars eat plants whose roots are pungent and as a result the caterpillars are foul tasting, making them distasteful to predators.
Not all butterflies in the Swallowtail family fit into these groups. Other butterflies in the Swallowtail family such as Parnassians are very different looking than the Swallowtail species.
The Whites & Sulphurs Family – (Pieridae)
The Whites & Sulphurs (Pieridae) Family – 1000 species worldwide; 60 in the United States and Canada; twenty-seven species in East Coast region. The Sulphurs range in size from very small to large. These usually medium-sized butterflies have wingspans of 1 ¼ – 2” (32 -51 mm).
These butterflies are mostly in shades of white, yellow or yellowish-green. A few species have orange tips on their wings or greenish and yellow marbling on their wings. Whites and Sulphur butterflies may have different colorings in different seasons or between the sexes. The most common species in East are the Cabbage White and Orange Sulphur butterflies.
The caterpillars are often green, cylindrical and lacking remarkable color or markings like other caterpillars.
Whites—700 species worldwide; 22 in the U.S.; and 8 in the East Coast region. The White caterpillars feed on host plants in the mustard family.
Sulphurs–300 species worldwide; 37 species in North America and Canada; 19 in East Coast region. Sulphur caterpillars tend to feed on legumes.
The Gossamer or Hairstreaks and Blues Family – Lycaenidae
The Hairstreaks and Blues Family – Gossamer-Wings (Lycaenidae) Family – One of the largest butterfly families in the world. There are an estimated 4000 to 6000 species in the world, with 140 north of Mexico; and about 46 in the East Coast region.
These are small to medium-sized butterflies with wingspans from 7/8 – 2’’ (22 – 51 mm). The butterflies display a wide range of colors in grays, blues, browns, oranges and some greens. Many of the caterpillars are green.
Many of the caterpillars are specialists and feed on specific hostplants, which can help in identifying a species. The Gossamer Wings is the family of caterpillars that are tended by ants. Ants tend nearly half of the Gossamer Wing caterpillars in the world. The caterpillars secrete a honey-like substance, which the ants eat. The ants protect their food source from predators who want to make a meal of the caterpillar.
There are four subgroups of the Gossamer Wings Butterflies.
- Harvesters – One specie in the East Coast region
- Coppers – Four species in the East Coast region. Coppers are copper in color.
- Hairstreaks – Thirty species in the East Coast region usually have “tails” on wings
- Blues – Thirteen to Seventeen species in the East Coast region. Usually blue.
The Metalmarks Family – (Riodinidae)
The Metalmarks (Riodinidae) Family – There are about 100 species worldwide with 90% in the Americas and the Caribbean; 24 species in North America, 2 species occur in the East Coast region. The North American Metalmarks are small butterflies with wingspans of 5/8 – 2’’ (16 – 51mm) wide.
The North American Metalmarks are mostly shades of brown, gray, or rust. The name ‘metalmark’ comes from shiny metallic scales on their wings.
The Brushfoots Family – Nymphalids (Nymphalidae)
Nymphalids (Nymphalidae) Family- often called Brushfoots. There are over 5000 species worldwide; 200 in North America north of Mexico, 70 species in the East Coast region. The group gets its name from the reduced front legs of both the female and male butterflies of each species.
The caterpillars vary widely in appearance and feed on a wide variety of host plants.
This large, diverse family includes these major groups:
- Snouts – 1 species in East Coast region
- Heliconians – 2 species in East Coast region
- Fritillaries – 1 specie in East Coast region
- Crescents and Checkerspots – 10 species in East Coast region
- Typical Brushfoots – 16 species in the East Coast region
- Admirals and Relatives – 7 species in the East Coast region
The Skippers Family (Hesperiidae)
The Skippers Family – There are about 3600 species of Skippers worldwide; 280 in North America north of Mexico, 60 species live in the East Coast region.
Skippers are my favorite butterflies. They are furry with big friendly eyes. They range in color from browns, grays, and oranges. They are subtle and unassuming. Skippers differ from other butterflies by their proportionally larger bodies, smaller wings and different body details. They are fast fliers and zoom by in a blur. I was lucky one day when a European Skipper landed on my chest and I was able to study it close up.
The caterpillars are green, cigar-shaped with a narrow neck and a big head. Most Skipper caterpillars build leaf nests held together with silk. The caterpillar rests in this leaf nest during the day and comes out at night to feed.
The six butterfly families categorizing 18,000 butterflies species is a tremendous help in learning to identify and understand butterflies’ role in their environments.
More Information on Butterflies
North American Butterfly Association http://www.naba.org/
Butterflies and Moths of North America: Collecting and Sharing Data about Lepidoptera–link to photos http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/taxonomy
Regional Checklist’s – for around the North and South America and the Caribbean http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/checklists
Hosts: The Hostplant Database https://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/data/hostplants/search/index.dsml
References: Research I Used
Butterflies of the East Coast by Rick Cech and Guy Tudor
Butterfly Photographer’s Handbook by William B. Folsom
Caterpillars in the Field and Garden: A Field Guide to the Butterfly Caterpillars of North America – covers western caterpillars
Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner
Caterpillars of Western North America – I could find book that covered caterpillars of the western part of North America
Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars of North America by Amy Barlett Wright (suitable for use with kids)
Peterson’s Guide to Eastern Butterflies by Paul A. Opler and Vichai Malikul
Peterson First Guide to Butterflies and Moths by Paul A. Opler (suitable for use with kids)