Butterflies, Moths, and Skippers


a skipper, possibly a zabulon skipper (Poanes zabulon)

When I took this photo I wondered, is that a moth or a butterfly?  Eventually I identified it as a skipper, which I thought was a kind of butterfly until this article came along.  So of course I had to dig a little deeper.

Researching these topics usually becomes an exercise in understanding names, which usually leads down the rabbit hole into the wonderland of taxonomy, a place I love but don’t want to be visiting every time I write a blog post.

To my great relief, I found this right away: “From a taxonomic standpoint, the distinction between moths and butterflies is largely artificial”.*

Moths, butterflies, and skippers are in the order Lepidoptera, (from the ancient Greek words meaning “scale” and “wing”).  Scaly, pigmented wings that are relatively large compared to body size is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the order.   In general – there are always exceptions – the differences come down to this:


Moths are mostly nocturnal, hold their wings flat when at rest, tend to be drab colors, and have threadlike or featherlike antennae.






Butterflies are diurnal, hold their wings over their bodies when at rest, tend to be brightly colored, and have hooked or club-like antennae.





Skippers often hold their forewings over their bodies and their hindwings flat, have moth-like heads and bodies, have knobbed antennae with hooked tips, have smaller wings with respect to body size, and larger eyes than moths and butterflies.

As Shakespeare wrote:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet…


northern pearly eye (Enodia anthedon)

*North Carolina State University General Entomology website
other sources:
Wikipedia articles about skippers and Lepidoptera 
Encyclopædia Brittanica


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