Fascinating fluttering facts

Press release - 31 March 2008

  • A caterpillar grows to about 27,000 times the size it was when it first emerged from its egg.
  • Caterpillars have 4,000 muscles – humans only have 629.
  • Unlike humans, a caterpillar’s skin does not grow. Whenever it gets fatter it must shed its skin and grow a new, bigger one. It sheds up to five skins in its life.
  • Young western tiger swallowtail caterpillars look like bird poo, so birds won’t eat them.
  • The pupa of some butterflies, like the large blue butterfly, can produce weak sounds inside the chrysalis to scare off predators.
  • Butterflies have taste sensors in their feet and by standing on food can taste it.
  • Butterflies don’t have mouths that allow them to chew or bite, they have a long straw-like structure called a proboscis that allows them to suck up nectar. When not in use, the proboscis coils up like a garden hose.
  • The fastest flying butterflies belong to the family Hesperiidae, witnessed flying as fast as 39 km/h (24mph). However, the death’s hawk moth has been credited at flying at nearly 54km/h (33.5mph).
  • Each year, monarch butterflies fly approximately 3,000km in their annual migration from North America to Mexico.
  • Antarctica is the only continent where butterflies have not been found.
  • There are approximately 18,000 species of butterfly, and many more moths – about 147,000 all over the world. The scientific name for butterflies and moths is Lepidoptera.
  • Butterflies and moths have skeletons on the outside of their bodies, called an exoskeleton. This protects the insect and keeps water inside their bodies so they don’t dry out.
  • The largest known butterfly is the rare Queen Alexandra’s birdwing from Papua New Guinea. Females are larger than males and have a front wingspan sometimes more than 28cm (11in) from tip to tip.
  • The smallest known butterfly is the dwarf blue, which has a wingspan of 1.4cm and from Africa.
  • Butterflies and moths are normally thought of as quiet insects, but male butterflies in the genus Hamadryas make a loud clickety-clickety-clack sound that can be heard up to 30m away.
  • Some butterflies use Batesian mimicry – edible butterflies display the wing patterns of inedible butterflies to protect themselves against potential predators.

Visitor information

Dates: 5 April until 17 August 2008
Opening times: Monday to Sunday 10.00–16.00
Visitor enquiries: 020 7942 5000
Admission: £5, £3.50 concessions, £14 family (up to five, minimum one adult, maximum two). Free for Members, Patrons and children aged three
and under.
Booking: www.nhm.ac.uk/amazing-butterflies
A £1.50 transaction fee per booking applies on all advance tickets
Nearest tube: South Kensington


Notes for editors

• Selected by Time Out in 2007 as one of the Seven Wonders of London, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries.
• The entomology collections at the Natural History Museum total an estimated 28 million specimens. Of these, 8,712,000 are butterflies and moths.