Coming to Terms with Nature Terms

Distinguishing between nature terms can be confusing. What are the differences between butterflies and moths? What are the differences between fruits and vegetables? This guide will help you decipher the subtle differences in nature terminology.

| February/March 2008

toad on toadstool

A toad on a russula species mushroom, a few varieties of which are poisonous. The term “toadstool” is a holdover from the days when people believed a mushroom became poisonous when a toad sat under or on it.


It’s not that I’m obsessed with naming things in nature. If anything, I resist the human urge to place labels on all creatures great and small. A rose by any other name does indeed smell as sweet, a butterfly flutters as beautifully and a deer bounds as gracefully — no matter whether it’s a mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), a white-tailed deer (O. virginianus) or a Grand Kraut deer (Iconfessi madethatoneupus). But even if you leave genus and species hairsplitting to the scientists, there is still plenty of fodder for confusion in everyday nature terminology. It’s easy enough to distinguish a fish from a mammal, but what about a vegetable from a fruit and a ... well, here for your review are common nature terms that many people (hopefully not just me) confuse or misuse at one time or another.

Moth vs. Butterfly

The essential distinction here is that most moths are fly-by-nights and butterflies are day creatures. Perhaps more accurately, butterflies are light- and warmth-loving creatures. A gray, cloudy day is enough to keep butterflies from taking to the skies.

But a good many moths are day-fliers, too. Beelike sphinx moths dart about in the late afternoon at flowering plants along roadsides and in meadows. In the Southwest, buckmoths flit among the chaparral’s sun-washed vegetation. High in the Colorado Rockies, tiger and owlet moths feed on alpine sunflower.

The major differences between moths and butterflies are physical. Butterflies are sleeker, flashier and more colorful than most moths, which have fat, furry bodies and rely on dull colors and patterns to help them hide during the day, disguised as bird droppings, dead leaves, lichens or tree bark. Also, butterflies at rest hold their wings together upright, like the sail on a sailboat. Moths fold theirs flat, rooflike, against their backs.

Confusing the above rules are skippers — common day-flying butterflies, most of which hold their wings appropriately vertical, or nearly so. But otherwise they are more mothish — their wings dull brown and rust, their bodies plump and fuzzy. Some scientists say skippers aren’t butterflies or moths, but their own something-in-between.

To tell whether an insect is a skipper, a “true” butterfly or a moth, check out its antennae. Skippers have slender antennae that curve back at the end, like a shepherd’s crook. Other butterflies have slender, smooth antennae that are thicker and rounded at the end, like a club. And moths have feathery antennae that taper to a point.

catherine russell
1/3/2012 1:08:36 AM

Delightful article!! More, more....!

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