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The Meanings of Butterfly Colors

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While it can be a joy to watch brightly colored butterflies fluttering through the air, these striking colors and patterns aren't there for your enjoyment. A range of meanings exist behind the colors and patterns on their wings. These colorations have evolved for a reason and help butterflies to survive.

Hiding From Predators

Some butterfly species have adapted colors that allow them to camouflage themselves in their environment. For instance, leaf wing butterflies (Zaretis itys) have wings that look almost identical to dead leaves, and the green and white coloration of orange tip butterflies' (Anthocharis cardamines) wing undersides offers them camouflage among the garlic mustard flowers on which they often feed. Species with this kind of camouflage are less likely to be spotted, and subsequently eaten, by potential predators.

Sending a Warning

Butterflies can use their coloration to send a warning to would-be predators. Some species adopt aposematic coloration, which is meant to warn predators they're unpalatable, toxic or dangerous. Many non-toxic, perfectly tasty species have evolved with this coloration to trick predators into leaving them alone. Diematic patterns are used to scare off predators and are usually in the form of eyespots or ocelli. On seeing these ocelli, potential predators think they're staring into the eyes of a creature larger than themselves and will turn tail to avoid getting eaten themselves.

Attracting a Mate

In some cases, bright colors are used to help butterflies attract mates. Distinctive patterns allow members of the same species to locate one another when breeding season comes around. In certain species, males and females have different patterns or coloration from each other. Their color may advertise their gender, allowing others of their species to tell -- even from a distance -- whether they're barking up the wrong tree, attempting to court a member of the same sex. Iridescent species of butterflies also utilize the refraction of light off their wings to send out a signal to potential mates.

Keeping Warm

As cold-blooded creatures, butterflies need to bask in the sunlight to absorb heat into their bodies. Black pigmentation absorbs heat more easily than other colors and can help butterflies to regulate their body temperature. Thus, many butterfly species have at least some black markings or patterns on their wings. Some species, such as orange sulphur butterflies (Colias eurytheme) have darker forms that emerge in the spring and lighter forms for the hot summer months.