Why Do Butterflies and Moths Have Such Detailed Wings?

Io moth
The Io moth, Automeris io, has distinctive wings. (Photo: StevenRussellSmithPhotos/Shutterstock)
Orange oakleaf butterfly
(Photo: Swallowtail Garden Seeds/flickr)

At first glance, the wings of this moth may seem unimpressive, but a closer look reveals an impressive mimic, from the perfect leaf shape and tiny veins right down to the broken edges. The orange oakleaf, aka dead leaf butterfly, lives in the tropics of Asia, where its brightly colored wings fit in with the other flashy animals, but the underside of its wings offers the true evolutionary advantage. These butterflies can vary in size, shape and coloration depending on whether it's the dry season or the wet season.

There are similar stories behind the decorative wings of many other species of moths and butterflies. Whether they're trying to look toxic, confuse predators, or blend into their environment, it's clear that these insects aren't merely flashy for the sake of fashion. Here are some of the most impressive wings in the order Lepidoptera:

Gray hairstreak butterfly appears to have two heads
(Photo: StingrayPhil/flickr)

Grey hairstreak butterfly

With antennae-shaped tails, this tricky butterfly pretends to have two heads. Seen above in its usual upside-down stance, the dummy head is meant to fool predators. When a bird sees the false head and swoops in for the attack, the grey hairstreak butterfly can keep its eye on an exit strategy.

Wasp moth
(Photo: sandeepak/flickr)

Wasp moth

Euchromia polymena screams "back off!" with its bold colors and striking resemblance to a wasp. Its body is shaped to look like the stinging insects. Other wasp-mimicking species have less elaborate, clear or dark-colored wings that may dupe us into thinking they're wasps, but this species is by far the fanciest.

Hummingbird clearwing moth
(Photo: photofarmer/flickr and drphotomoto/flickr)

Photos: photofarmer/flickr and drphotomoto/flickr

Hummingbird clearwing moth

A phenomenal example of mimicry, the hummingbird clearwing moth has this tiny bird down to a T, from the green thorax to the flared tail. This moth's wings are even colored ruby red, shaped to mirror the rapid and graceful flutter of the tiny, nectar-drinking bird. With a range from Alaska to Maine to Florida, it's quite possible you've been tricked by this moth!

Snowberry clearwing moth
(Photo: drphotomoto/flickr)

Snowberry clearwing moth

A cousin of the hummingbird clearwing, the snowberry clearwing is a dead ringer for a bumblebee. This fortuitous photo captured by John Flannery shows the two feeding off the same plant, and as you can tell, everything from the fuzzy thorax to the translucent wings says bumblebee. This clever imposter lives in Canada and the United States and can be seen hovering around honeysuckle, cherry, plum and snowberry plants.

Atlas moth
(Photo: Vipin Baliga/flickr)

Atlas moth

With a wingspan that can reach almost a foot in length, this is considered the biggest moth on Earth — but the atlas moth doesn't stop there to ensure its safety. This huge, tropical moth of Southeast Asia has some peculiar decorations on its wings. Take a closer look at the border on the outer edge of the wings, all the way up to the tips. What does it look like to you? The Cantonese name for this moth actually translates to "snake's head moth." When the atlas moth moves its wings, it resembles a writhing snake.

Giant owl butterfly
(Photo: Reinhard Burkl/flickr)

Giant owl butterfly

It almost looks as though an owl is peeking out from behind the tree! Owl butterflies have fascinating underwings that feature pairs of eyes, ranging from an almost comical eyebrow raise to a menacing glare. While the owl butterflies obviously resemble the bird of prey for which they are named, some scientists also argue that the design resembles the sideways glance of an amphibian.

Plume moth
(Photo: Oscar Rasson/flickr)

White plume moth

The eerie, wispy wings of the plume moth resemble the long white feathers of an egret. This European moth takes to the low grassy fields of Britain in the summer months, flying like a little ghost after sunset.

Twenty plume moth
(Photo: wildhastings/flickr)

Twenty-plume moth

Only a dozen millimeters in length, this many-plumed moth appears to have the wings of a miniscule bird. Unlike its pale cousin, this moth hides in plain sight year-round in the U.S. and throughout Europe.

Pasha butterfly collage
(Photo: jwsteffelaar/flickr (left)

Photos: jwsteffelaar/flickr (left); ferranp/flickr (both middle); micksway/flickr (right)

Two-tailed pasha butterfly, aka. foxy emperor

Here's a stunner for you: the two-tailed pasha butterfly has starkly different patterns on each side of its wings and can take on different appearances depending on the angle of observation.

"From one angle it looks like a bird with a gaping beak, while from another it looks like a caterpillar with a spiny head," entomologist Philip Howse told The Telegraph. "The last one it looks like a grasshopper resting on bark."

This butterfly of many faces lives throughout Africa, the Mediterranean and Europe.

Io moth
The Io moth, Automeris io, has distinctive wings. (Photo: StevenRussellSmithPhotos/Shutterstock)

Io moth

One of the most beautiful moths, the io moth's wings are notable because of the stark eye-like decorations that have 3-D qualities. It's easy to get lost in the eyespots of the moths in the genus Automeris, as they appear to contain a tiny star cluster.