Painted lady butterflies

Painted lady butterflies are in the record books thanks to their long migrations, covering thousands of miles © Cathy Keifer/

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Nature's Olympians: record-breaking butterflies and moths

They could beat a horse in a race and survive a blizzard.  No challenge is too much for these butterflies and moths.

Beating the competition is everything, and it has forced some species to grow faster, higher, stronger and bigger to win first prize in the survival stakes.

Butterfly curator Dr Blanca Huertas explains the secrets behind their success.

A skipper

Skippers are speed champions © David J Martin/


Fastest butterfly: skipper

Skippers are natural sprinters. They can reach speeds of up to 37 miles per hour and have some of nature's fastest reflexes. They could keep pace with a horse in a race, and they get their name from their quick flight patterns.

There are nearly 4,000 different species of skipper, found everywhere in the world except Antarctica.

Researchers have recently found that when skippers are startled, they react at least twice as quickly as a human does.

Huertas says, 'Fast reactions and flight speeds help skippers deal with danger and avoid predators.'

Bright green Queen Alexandra's birdwing butterflies

Bright green Queen Alexandra's birdwing butterflies shimmer in their rainforest home © Mark Pellegrini, via Wikimedia Commons


Biggest butterfly: Queen Alexandra's birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae)

Female Queen Alexandra's birdwings are the biggest butterflies in the world, boasting a wingspan of around 27 centimetres.

The endangered species lives in the rainforests of northern Papua New Guinea and plays an important role in the ecosystem.

Its large size means it is able to pollinate bigger plants that other insects cannot manage. Sadly, its habitat is being rapidly cut down to make way for palm oil plantations.

The females are dark brown with cream patches and yellow abdomens, and the males are bright green.

Huertas says, 'The largest recorded specimen, which has a wingspan of 27.3 centimetres, is in the Museum's Lepidoptera collections.

'The specimen was collected in late 1800s, but still looks like it was collected yesterday.'

Painted ladies

Painted ladies can adapt to dozens of different environments © Gary L Brewer/


Longest migration: painted lady (Vanessa cardui)

The relay team of the butterfly world, the painted lady species completes an impressive 9,000 mile journey from tropical Africa to the Arctic Circle.

One butterfly alone could not manage the journey, so it is completed in stages, with up to six successive generations spending their lives flying north.

The painted lady recently took the crown for the longest journey from the monarch butterfly, which migrates annually from Canada to Mexico and California.

Painted ladies are some of the most widespread butterflies in the world, found across every continent except Antarctica and Australia.

They are happy in many habitats, from mountaintops to beaches, finding it easy to adjust from bogs to deserts and dunes to rainforests.

Huertas says, 'The painted lady's ability to adapt to a wide range of environments means it is able to thrive and reproduce successfully. It is one of the most interesting butterflies in the world - and beautiful, too.' 

Morgan's sphinx moth

Darwin predicted the existence of this creature years before it was found © kqedquest, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0


Longest proboscis: Morgan's sphinx moth (Xanthopan morganii)

A proboscis is the elongated mouth part that butterflies use to feed on nectar hidden inside flowers.

The Morgan's sphinx has a proboscis that measures a foot in length. It is the only pollinator of the Madagascar orchid, an unusual flower in which the nectar is kept at the bottom of a long spur.

Charles Darwin predicted the existence of this creature before it was even discovered, after he studied the species of orchid it feeds on.

He knew that any flower keeping its nectar so well-hidden would need a corresponding unusual pollinator. Darwin died in 1882, but the moth was not discovered until 1903.

Dr Ian Kitching, a Museum hawkmoth expert, says, 'The plant and the moth are perfectly suited to each other, each supporting the other's survival.' 

Piercolias forsteri

Piercolias forsteri may be tiny, but it is a high jumper, soaring higher than any other butterfly © Gerardo Lamas/The Bavarian State Collection of Zoology


Highest-flying: Piercolias forsteri

This species flies in the high Andes mountains of Bolivia in South America, about 4,200 metres above sea level.

The butterfly roams peaks that are covered in rocks, ice and snow, with little vegetation.

Several related species fly at similar heights, braving extreme temperatures.

When naturalist Gustav Garlepp discovered the closely-related Piercolias huanaco, he is said to have remarked: 'I cannot understand its choosing such wastes and deserts, or how it can exist there at all.'