Are Butterflies Moths?

Patrick Foley patfoley at
Tue Jun 26 22:51:06 EDT 2001

Mary Beth and other potential postcladists,

Cladism is the application of Darwin's branching tree of evolution (which he
clearly is thinking about in the Origin when he expects a revolution in
taxonomy from his theory) to taxonomic problems. It  takes on several forms,
some polemical. It is true that some cladists do not even want to form the
word in their mouth of a taxonomic category that is not a clade (branch).

Moths (as commonly defined) do not form a clade. Lepidoptera apparently do.
Butterflies apparently do form a clade (although less is known about this
than you would expect). So an extremely intolerant cladist would not want to
use the word 'moth' unless you included butterflies. Most cladists would
allow you to use the term moth as a catchall term for a nonclade,
paraphyletic group. As it has been used for a long time by most

Note that 1) Reptiles, 2) Dinosaurs, 3) Amphibians (if you include the early
extinct ones), 4) Apes and many other groups are not clades (not
monophyletic, but paraphyletic) if you include the usual suspects. They
become clades only by adding in, 1) Mammals and Birds, 2) Birds (probably),
3) All the tetrapods, and 4) Humans. That would make mammals reptiles (at
least if turtles split off first, a controversial proposition), birds
dinosaurs (a la the ending of Jurassic Park), and humans amphibians and apes,
not to mention reptiles.

Come on people, lets get together,
Patrick Foley
patfoley at

mbpi at wrote:

> Hi all,
> Once again, I'd like to open up another "can-of-worms..."
> Do all on this listserv agree that butterflies are moths, as the Cladists
> assert?  Not having done any research myself on this assertion, I'd like
> to know if this is an accepted position in the taxonomic hierarchy.
> And getting back to my tribe of eclectic tent-dwellers and behavioral
> observations:  some visitors remarked on a curious behavior that appears
> to be predominant in the Julias.  They like to stand on each others wings
> (no proboscis "vacuum cleaning" observed, however...).  The recipient of
> the "wing standing" tends to be an older, worn individual, with the
> "stander" placing itself at an angle on one of the recipient's wings.
> They just sit two communal if anticipating the
> impending demise of the worn individual (!)
> Okay, so I'm becoming sentimental in my anthropomorphizing!  It's still
> interesting to watch.
> Mary Beth Prondzinski
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