What's the Difference Between Moths and Butterflies?

iStock/Serg_Velusceac
iStock/Serg_Velusceac

Butterflies and moths share a lot in common. Both species are insects, they both start life as caterpillars, and they both sport large, lustrous wings. But there are also clear scientific differences that separate the two—and you don't need to be an entomologist to recognize them.

Moths and butterflies look and behave so similarly because they comprise the same order of insects. Organisms in the order Lepidoptera are defined by their scaled wings and the straw-like mouthparts they use to sip fluids. They are born as larvae with segmented bodies and chewing mouthparts and undergo metamorphosis to reach their mature forms.

When a Lepidoptera caterpillar has entered its pupa stage, it will emerge as a creature that falls under one of two umbrellas: moth or butterfly. Moths can generally be recognized by their antennae. Unlike butterflies, which have long, skinny antennae that get wider at the tips, moth antennae have rows of hair-like bristles like feathers.

If you can't see the antennae of the insect you're looking at, check its wings. They're both large and shiny, but the wings of moths and butterflies bear some key differences. Moth wings have a structure that butterflies lack called a frenulum, which connects the front and back sections of the wings together. When butterflies close their wings, they bring them together above their backs like the pages of a book, and when moths close them, they fold them straight back like a paper fan. Color can be a distinguishing factor—butterflies like monarchs and swallowtails have brightly colored wings, while moths tend to be colored with duller shades like browns and creams—but that doesn’t always confirm whether a creature is a moth or a butterfly. Some moth species, like the luna and rosy maple moth, display strikingly vibrant color patterns.

Fox moth with its wings pulled back.
A fox moth with its wings pulled back.
iStock/Ian_Redding

Their differences don't end with appearances. The time of day these critters can be seen out and about indicates which type of lepidopteran they are. While most butterflies are diurnal, meaning they're active during the day, moths tend to be nocturnal. Without bright sunlight to fly by, moths evolved to use the moon to navigate, which is why the insects are attracted to bright light sources like porch lights and campfires.

In summary: If you can't tell if the thing flapping its wings in front of you is a moth or butterfly, check its wings, antennae, and the time of day. And if you want to know if it's a bug, an insect, or both, there's an entirely different elimination process you need to go through.

In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

In 1989, some three decades after King had earned his doctorate, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

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Who Is 'The Real McCoy'?

Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Ypsilanti Historical Society, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After taking a cool, carbonated sip of champagne from the Champagne region of France, you might say, “Ah, now that’s the real McCoy.” Sparkling wine from anywhere else is technically just sparkling wine.

The phrase “the real McCoy,” which can be used to describe any genuine version of something, has several possible origin stories. And while none of them mention champagne, a few do involve other types of alcohol.

According to HowStuffWorks, the earliest known recorded instance of the saying was an 1856 reference to whisky in the Scottish National Dictionary—"A drappie [drop] o' the real MacKay”—and by 1870, a pair of whisky distillers by the name of McKay had adopted the slogan “the real McKay” for their products. As the theory goes, the phrase made its long journey across the pond, where it eventually evolved into the Americanized “McCoy.”

Another theory suggests “the real McCoy” originated in the United States during Prohibition. In 1920, Florida-based rum runner Bill McCoy was the first enterprising individual to stock a ship with alcohol in the Caribbean, sail to New York, and idle at least three miles offshore, where he could sell his wares legally in what was then considered international waters. Since McCoy didn’t water down his alcohol with substances like prune juice, wood alcohol, and even turpentine, people believe his customers started calling his top-notch product “the real McCoy.” There’s no definitive proof that this origin story is true, but The Real McCoy rum distillery was founded on the notion.

There are also a couple other leading theories that have nothing to do with alcohol. In 1872, inventor Elijah McCoy patented a self-regulating machine that lubricated parts of a steam engine without the need for manual maintenance, allowing trains to run continuously for much longer distances. According to Snopes, the invention’s success spawned a plethora of poor-quality imitations, which led railroad personnel to refer to McCoy’s machines as “the real McCoy.”

Elijah McCoy’s invention modernized the transportation industry, but he wasn’t the only 19th-century McCoy who packed a punch. The other was welterweight champion Norman Selby, better known as Kid McCoy. In one story, McCoy decked a drunken bar patron to prove that he really was the famous boxer, prompting others to christen him “the real McCoy.” In another, his alleged penchant for throwing fights caused the press to start calling him “the real McCoy” to acknowledge when he was actually trying to win. And yet another simply suggests that the boxer’s popularity birthed so many McCoy-wannabes that Selby started to specify that he was, in fact, the real McCoy.

So which “the real McCoy” origin story is the real McCoy? The 1856 Scottish mention of “the real MacKay” came before Elijah McCoy’s railroad invention, Kid McCoy’s boxing career, and Bill McCoy’s rum-running escapades, but it’s possible that the phrase just gained popularity in different spheres at different times.

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