As a prairie ecologist who tries to help others fall in love with prairies, one of the primary obstacles I run into is that most people can’t recognize very many of the incredible species that live in grasslands. If one plant or animal looks just like another, everything looks the same! As a result, when those people visit a prairie for the first time, it appears to be a flat, boring wasteland – a monochromatic smear of vegetation and bugs. That’s uninteresting, unattractive, and uninviting. It’s also a huge problem for conservation since we need people to care enough to support our work.
As a response to this crisis, I’ve decided to start a new periodic series of blog posts aimed at helping people distinguish between some of the more common groups of prairie species they might encounter. This is not a field guide and won’t (usually) help people identify individual species. Instead, the purpose is simply to provide some very basic tips that will help them tell some organisms apart from others and start to see some of the diversity those of us familiar with prairies sometimes take for granted.
For this inaugural installment, I’ll start with two common groups of animals: butterflies and grasshoppers. Those of us who see these animals frequently can easily tell one from the other but probably don’t think much about how we’re doing it. For the uninitiated, the two can look very similar.
It’s easy to see how these two organisms can be difficult to distinguish from each other. Both have long bodies, large eyes, six legs, and antennae, and those are just a few of their similarities! There are some stark differences too, but it’s important to know which are consistent, and thus useful.
For example, when looking at the above photos, you might immediately think, “Oh, that’s easy! Grasshoppers and green and butterflies are multi-colored!” I implore you not to fall into that trap. Both grasshoppers and butterflies can come in a wide variety of colors and color combinations, making color completely unreliable as a way to separate them. However, there are a few key characteristics than can help you tell them apart. We’ll start with the most helpful…
If you look closely at a butterfly, you may be able to see the long curling tongue it uses to access nectar from deep inside a flower. When it is feeding, this tongue is often extended in a way that makes it relatively easy to spot. Grasshoppers, on the other hand, don’t have a tongue. Instead, they have various other anatomical features that fill some of the roles of a tongue, but come with complicated names like “hypopharynx” or “three-segmented labial palps”.
Since butterflies have long tongues and grasshoppers have no tongues, this is obviously a great first step toward separating the two animals from each other. When you see an insect and you’re not immediately sure whether it is a butterfly or grasshopper, look first for the tell-tale tongue. It’s even alliterative!
Spines on legs
Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to use the presence or absence of a tongue to tell a grasshopper from a butterfly. Sometimes, butterflies either don’t have their tongue extended or it is out of sight because of the way the butterfly is positioned. This is problematic, but not a complete catastrophe. If you can’t see the tongue but aren’t completely sure you’re looking at a grasshopper, look next at the legs.
Most grasshoppers have spines on their legs. No one knows why this is, but it can be helpful when trying to distinguish between grasshoppers and butterflies since butterflies have hairy legs but almost never spiny legs.
The front legs of a grasshopper may or may not have obvious spines. Some do, but others merely have hairs like those seen on butterfly legs. However, if you focus on the rear legs (the big ones), grasshoppers almost always display prominent spines, especially on the leg segment closest to their feet.
There’s a simple rhyming phrase than can help you remember this clue. It’s easy to imagine the spines on a grasshopper’s leg as being able to pop a balloon. Thus, you can remember that grasshoppers have spiny legs with the phrase, “Grasshoppers are balloon poppers”. Easy peasy!
Used in tandem with each other, the combination of tongues and leg spines will usually be sufficient to tell whether a particular insect is a grasshopper or a butterfly. In desperate situations, however, there is one final feature that can be used…
Bulbous antennae tips
While the tongue or leg spines of these creatures can (rarely) be simultaneously concealed, the antennae will almost always be visible in those cases. For example, if you look back at the earlier photo of the orange creature in which the tongue wasn’t visible, you’ll notice that the legs are also concealed. Vexing! But look closer, and you’ll see that the antennae are clearly visible. This saving grace will allow us to decide with confidence whether it is a butterfly or grasshopper.
Antennae are the two linear projections protruding from the heads of both grasshoppers and butterflies. These likely serve a purpose that science will someday discover. Initially, you might think the fact that both creatures have antennae would make those structures unhelpful in telling one creature from another. Look more closely, however, and you’ll notice that butterflies have little knobs or bulbs at the extreme tips of their antennae. The antennae of grasshoppers do not have this feature.
There’s a fun and easy way to remember the significance of the bulbous tip of a butterfly’s antennae. The term ‘grasshopper’ implies a creature that can jump, right? Whether or not that’s true isn’t important. What matters is the following phrase: “If it has a bump, it probably can’t jump.” In other words, a creature with a ‘bump’ on the tip of its antennae isn’t a grasshopper.
You’ve now learned three different cues you can employ to tell whether an animal is a butterfly or a grasshopper. First, look for a tongue. Second, try to see whether there are spines on the legs (especially the hind legs). Third, check the antennae to see if they have a swollen tip. Any one of these may be enough to make an identification, but two or more are firmly diagnostic.
Let’s test your knowledge by looking again at a photo shown earlier.
Only one of the three key characteristics is visible in the above photo. Can you tell whether it is a butterfly or grasshopper?
It is, of course, a butterfly because “if it has a bump, it probably can’t jump”. Well done!
I hope this has been a helpful guide for telling the difference between butterflies and grasshoppers. If you did find it useful, please share it with your friends and family – then stay tuned for future installments of this series and learn about other fascinating and beautiful prairie plants and animals!
After 30+ years in the field, someone finally answers one of my most vexing questions!
Tongue in cheek aside, this post did provide me with two interesting educational nuggets: 1) I really should do a better job annotating my lightroom galleries so I could pull out all of my grasshopper and/or butterfly photos at a moment’s notice. 2) These two organisms are taxonomically as related as a jay and a dove, yet the overall morphologies are incredibly different. Lesson? Insects are masters of divergence.
And remember – if there is a tongue in a cheek, it’s a butterfly. Though I don’t think butterflies technically have cheeks.
For what it’s worth, Photo Mechanic is indispensable to me as an easy way to add metadata to photos (and do lots of other things). But I also have a series of folders where I store low res images, separated by taxa to make it easy to find them. For this post, I went to my grasshopper folder and my lep folder and quickly found what I was looking for. Sometimes searching by key words is essential, but most of the time, I find it way faster to just go to my folders.
After taking my first undergraduate zoology class, I was committed to organizing every photo into a taxonomical hierarchy that would have been Linnaeus swoon (this was long before I could ever afford any sort of photo managing software). I spent weeks creating the folder system (with mostly empty folders) with the idea that empty folders would incentivize me filling them with photos of the appropriate taxa. The real outcome was that it took my clicking through 6 folders to find a photo of my dog. I like the idea of some broad taxa folders with low res photos. I now organize everything by date with keywords (as much as I can keep up) with low res versions in sub folders. I’m still looking for ways to improve it all, because it took me about an hour to find the high res version of the poppy mallow for Nebraskaland because I didn’t like photo enough to add keywords.
I think your biggest obstacle in getting people to learn the difference in between species will be getting them to look up from their phones.
On a side note-
I like fritillaries and don’t often find a variegated, so I was pleasantly surprised to see your pic of one on gumweed!
another failing of our public schools, Biology is replaced with the latest social “science”.
At least butterflies and grasshoppers are both insects. In college Bio classes you have kids who can’t tell the difference between a mammal and a reptile.
“A really good follow up—Read Mary Oliver’s poem “A Summer Day” delightfully about a grasshopper. https://www.loc.gov/programs/poetry-and-literature/poet-laureate/poet-laureate-projects/poetry-180/all-poems/item/poetry-180-133/the-summer-day/ https://www.loc.gov/programs/poetry-and-literature/poet-laureate/poet-laureate-projects/poetry-180/all-poems/item/poetry-180-133/the-summer-day/
Thanks Ruth – it’s a lovely poem
Though I see butterflies and grasshoppers as being quite different from one another, I hadn’t really thought about how they were similar. Interesting.