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A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

6 Delightful Facts About Butterflies

Prepare for spring by reading up on the season's most delicate insects.

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iStock/Hayri Er

Some butterflies can keep up with a galloping horse

While most butterflies flit along at 5 to 10 mph, the skipper, found mostly in Central and South America, can top out at speeds up to 30 mph. Because the skipper has a stocky body and its small wings are typically colored with browns and grays, it’s easy to mistake this subspecies of a butterfly for a moth.

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Butterflies are almost as old as dinosaurs

In fact, the earliest butterfly fossils date back to Palaeocene Epoch, about 56 million years ago. (Dinosaurs became extinct about 65 million years ago). Experts believe that butterflies came into existence at about the same time as flowering plants, and originated on the supercontinent Pangea, which explains why most families of the insect are represented on most continents.

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Butterflies can’t fly in the cold

Since the cold-blooded butterfly can’t regulate its body temperature, the insect is particularly sensitive to changes in weatherRain and wind can damage its wings, and cold temperatures can render it literally unable to move its wings. Butterflies have various methods for maintaining an ideal body temperature of around 85 degrees Fahrenheit: they cluster together, hibernate in trees and other structures, “shiver” by flapping their wings, and bask in the sun.

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iStock/Bahadir Yeniceri

Butterflies have a couple of ingenious defense mechanisms

Like snakes, most butterflies adorned with bright colors, like Pipevine Swallowtail, are poisonous to predators. (What’s the difference between poisonous and venomous? Find out here). Their beautiful hues warn would-be attackers  to rethink their choice of snacks. Other butterflies, such as the Orange Tip, are masters of disguise, camouflaging themselves into their surroundings.

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Some Monarch butterflies migrate 3,000 miles each year

Come September, up to 300 million monarch butterflies in southern Canada and the United States begin their annual migration to California and central Mexico, roosting along the way on golf courses and beaches in Florida and California. In March, the butterflies embark on a return trip north. Because no single butterfly completes the entire migratory cycle, scientists believe that genetic information about directions and timing are passed down through the generations.

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The largest butterfly in the world might scare small children

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… a Queen Alexandra Birdwing? Considered the largest, and one of the rarest, butterflies in the world, the wings of the Queen Alexandra can reach up to one foot across and is only found in the rain forests of New Guinea. On the other side of the spectrum, the wee Western Pygmy Blue measures a mere half inch.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest