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Speckled wood butterflies

Posted: Tuesday 3 June 2014
by Richard Jones

It’s a good one to ask children, but it catches out adults too — how many legs does a butterfly have?


It’s a good one to ask children, but it catches out adults too — how many legs does a butterfly have? The answer usually comes back, knowledgably and authoritatively: “six”. But actually, four is more often the truth. And here’s the proof.
 
This is not a damaged butterfly, or a freak or a genetic mutant, nor is the picture photoshopped or otherwise doctored or altered. This speckled wood, Pararge aegeria, really does have only four walking legs.
 
Nearly half of Britain’s butterflies belong to the family Nymphalidae; this includes the fritillaries, browns, heaths, ringlets, tortoiseshells, admirals, peacock, comma and speckled wood. They all only have four legs. In this family, the largest and most diverse family of butterflies in the world, what might be considered the front limbs of other groups are reduced to short feathery vestigial stumps, all but invisible, hidden in the bodily fluff just under the head. They are not used for walking, or even for balance, but for brushing clean the antennae. Very aptly, the Nymphalidae are often named the brush-footed or four-footed butterflies.
 
This one, skipping around my mother’s garden in Newhaven is beautifully fresh, and probably one of the second generation, which starts to emerge from chrysalides in early June. Of course I could have included caterpillars in my insect leg-number question; surely you’ve heard of 16-legged butterflies.





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Russell Tilling 07/06/2014 at 09:24

Very interesting! I had noticed that Brimstones have six and Speckled Woods four.