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Kids' Inquiry of Diverse Species

Local animals in this group:

brush-footed butterflies


What do they look like?

This family of butterflies gets its name from its front legs. They are shorter than the other four legs, and they don't use them to walk or stand. These front legs don't have feet, just little brushes of hairs that the butterflies can use to smell and taste with. Sometimes the front legs are so small you can't see them.

This is a very diverse group of species. Some are brightly colored, some well camouflaged. Most have brown camouflage patterns on the underside of the wings, and brighter colors (often orange) on top, but there are lots of exceptions. Some have rounded wings, some have irregular edges with notches and little curves. Several species in this group are mimics, they look like other species that are toxic, and so avoid predators.

Many of the caterpillars have horns or spines or bumps to discourage predators. Some are dark colored, some are green or yellow, many have stripes or spots.

(See More Information on Butterflies and Moths for a general physical description of butterflies.)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes shaped differently

Where do they live?

This is a large and diverse family of butterflies. Over 4,000 species of Brushfoots are found all around the world. In Michigan we have 37 species.

What kind of habitat do they need?

Species in this family are so variable that it is hard to generalize. Brushfoot butterflies can be found in almost any habitat that has plants.

How do they grow?

Like all Moths and Butterflies, this family has complete metamorphosis. See More Information on Butterflies and Moths for an explanation of this. Pupae do not make cocoons in this family, they are chrysalids. Usually it is the larvae that hibernate in this group, but a few species survive the winter as adults.

How do they reproduce?

After mating, females lay up to several hundred eggs. Some species lay their eggs one at time, others lay clusters together (this relates to the behavior of the caterpillars after they hatch).

  • Breeding season
    Late Spring, Summer, and/or early Fall.

Once they have laid their eggs, there is no parental care in these species.

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement

How long do they live?

In most species of Brushfoots, individuals only live for a year or a little more (not more than two winters). A few cold climate species may survive through two winters as larvae or pupae, but the adults only survive for a few weeks. Some temperate climate adults live the longest of any adult butterflies, surviving for 6 months or more.

How do they behave?

Adults are active only in daylight. Some caterpillars feed at night, others during the day. Some Brushfoot species migrate long distances from southern North America north in the spring.

How do they communicate with each other?

These butterflies communicate mainly with their scent and their colors. Males attract mates with scent and display, and females leave a scent mark on plants where they have laid eggs.

What do they eat?

Caterpillars of different species of brushfoots eat many different kinds of plants. Many specialize on just a few species or one family of plants. Some specialize on thistles or nettles, some on willow trees, some on plants in the daisy family, some on violets.

Adults sometimes sip nectar, but many species in this group seem to prefer tree sap or rotting fruit, and some feed on dung or mud.

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Caterpillars hide and feed at night, or have spines and horns which may release toxic chemicals. In some species young caterpillars live together in groups, and they all thrash around and give off toxic chemicals if predators attack.

Adults may have camouflage colors on their wings, and can fly away from danger. Some species are toxic, and have warning colors to tell predators to leave them alone, and others mimic these colors but don't have the toxins.

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Some of these species are important herbivores, reducing the populations of their food plants.

Do they cause problems?

These harmless butterflies don't directly affect humans much in positive or negative ways. A few species have caterpillars that can cause a rash if you touch them.

  • Ways that these animals might be a problem for humans
  • injures humans
    • bites or stings

Are they endangered?

A few species in this family (but none in Michigan) are considered endangered or threatened, usually due to destruction of their habitat.

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated
University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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. "Nymphalidae" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 22, 2024 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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