Butterflies Use Color to Display and to Hide

By Renn Tumlison, tumlison@hsu.edu and Kristen Benjamin, benjamk@hsu.edu

Butterflies and some moths are known for their bright colors and beautiful patterns. Many people plant flower gardens just to attract butterflies, and one native milkweed plant is so good at attraction that it has been given the common name “butterfly weed.”

The wings of butterflies are large compared to the size of the body, which causes them to flutter as they fly. The expanse of the wings makes a billboard on which the butterfly can advertise. Colorful advertisement usually is meant to attract a mate. 

Many species of butterflies will find an open patch of ground as a setting for their display. Landing in such a site, the wings are held outward, so the colorful pattern is most easily seen. To increase the visibility of their patterns, displaying butterflies usually orient themselves to catch the full rays of the sun, and that brightens the colors and effect. A flashy advertisement has a drawback, however. Predators can see the presentation just as easily as can potential mates.  

In contrast with the colorful top of the wing, dull colors and broken patterns are found on the undersides of the wings in some species of butterflies. This mottled patterning can be used as a defensive mechanism. When approached by a possible predator (or a human with a camera), displaying butterflies often quickly pull their wings together and hold them above their bodies. That presents a much smaller surface when viewed from above, making it much more difficult to see the butterfly. The broader surface seen from the side is mottled and helps the butterfly to become inconspicuous against the background soil and vegetation.

If a butterfly is disturbed to the point of attempting to fly away from the area, the colorful wings will again be exposed and the escaping butterfly is easier to see. A predator can chase the now visible butterfly by tracking the flutter of colors. However, if the butterfly quickly lands, it is very difficult to find its exact location because the organism giving chase is now focused on finding the colors, which no longer are visible. In ecology, this phenomenon is called a “flash display” because the prey species gives the predator a flash of color on which to focus. While the distracted predator looks for the obvious sign, the butterfly seems to disappear by hiding its bright colors and using the mottled coloration blend with the environment.


In contrast to butterflies, most moths are active at night, so they use their forewing colors to hide during the day. Bright hindwing coloration of moths often is used to startle a predator.

Here are some examples of butterflies that are brightly colored when viewed from above, but are hidden by mottled coloration when the wings are folded above the body. 

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