Butterfly Life Cycle

Observe and learn about the four stages of the butterfly life cycle up close at the Coffs Harbour Butterfly House.

Stage 1: Egg

Female butterflies lay eggs on leaves of a particular plant called a host plant. Each species of butterfly has its own host plant that, when eaten by its caterpillar, will enable the caterpillar to grow and thrive.

To the human eye, eggs appear to be nothing more than small dots however the eggs vary quite a lot in their shape, surface decoration, colour and size. Caterpillars grow inside the eggs and hatch after a few days. Caterpillars hatch by eating out of their shell.

Stage 2: Larva / Caterpillar

A caterpillar has six pairs of eyes (called stemmata or ocelli), a mouth, six real legs on its thorax and three to six pairs of prolegs (false legs) on its abdomen.

Caterpillars spend their whole life eating and growing. If you listen closely in The Butterfly House you will probably hear them munching. The first thing a caterpillar eats is its eggshell and then starts to eat the leaves of its host plant. As the caterpillar grows it sheds its skins four or five times. Caterpillars eat approximately eight times their body mass each day.

The caterpillar spins a silk thread as it moves to help keep it attached to the leaves. After a few weeks the caterpillar spins a silk “button” on the underside of a leaf, attaches itself to this with fine hooks and hangs head down in a “J” shape.

The pupa is formed in the body of the caterpillar. The caterpillar’s skin splits and exposes the pupa.

Stage 3: Pupa / Chrysalis

The pupa hardens about an hour after being exposed to the air. The pupa hangs without moving for a while. Inside the pupa a wonderful change is happening.

This is called metamorphosis.

Although the pupa looks lifeless, there is a lot going on inside as the caterpillar is literally liquefied and then reassembled as a butterfly. As humans we find it hard to understand this process but it is sufficent to say it is one of natures miracles at work.

Stage 4: Adult / Butterfly

In some species of butterfly the first evidence that they are ready to emerge is a transparency of the pupa case revealing the colours of the wings beneath. After a while the chrysalis splits open, a limp, damp butterfly emerges. The wings are like soggy paper.

The butterfly hangs from the pupa case for an hour or so to let its wings straighten and dry out. Once the butterfly has done this and warmed itself in the sun it is ready to fly off and feed and mate, so continuing the on-going lifecycle.

A butterfly has a head, thorax and abdomen. Its four wings are attached to the thorax. The butterfly has six legs also attached to the thorax, however in some families two of these legs are modified for sensory purposes only. The first two legs in these families, when not in use, are kept folded up close to the head.

The butterfly has two compound eyes, which have 10,000 lenses.

The butterfly’s proboscis (tongue) is split when hatched. It forms into a hollow-tube like drinking straw. A butterfly cannot bite or chew; it only drinks nectar.

The antennae of the butterfly are slender with a knob on the end and are used for hearing.

The butterfly tastes through its feet and breathes through its side, as it has no lungs.