Image by Manjula Rao

Born in the Americas


Butterflies evolved roughly a 100 million years ago from ‘adventurous’ moths that explored day shifts for nectar browsing. A study based on DNA analysis had proved that in 2019. Extending that study further, scientists who collected DNA from 2000 species and built a butterfly tree of life, have concluded that butterflies originated from North and Central America and winged away to places as far as Australia and India.

Today, there are around 19,000 known species of butterflies. Using all available data, museum collections and 11 rare butterfly fossils, the authors write in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution the flight details of the winged beauties.

‘Some groups travelled over impossibly vast distances while others seem to have stayed in one place, remaining stationary while continents, mountains, and rivers moved around them.’

For some reason, they did not take the short cut to Africa but moved into Asia across the Bering Land Bridge and on to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and the Horn of Africa, stopping en route at India, which was an island back then. They even touchéd Australia, which was still attached to Antarctica.

Considering that lifespan of most butterflies is around 1-2 weeks and very few live for 6-12 months, the sea expedition that took them places is a marvel.

While bean plants were the ancestral hosts of most species, the butterflies diversified into other flowering plants and went on to become the one of the world’s largest insect group. In the process, the plants too diversified and spread.

In India, there are around 1318 species of butterflies.



Video credits: Sammilan Shetty

A swarm of mud-puddling butterflies from the Western Ghats. Seen in the video are: Common Jay, Painted Sawtooth, Common Emigrant, Common Bluebottle, Great Orange-tip, Red Helen and Blue Mormon