If you’ve ever stumbled upon a damaged butterfly, you may have felt a pang of pity. As possibly the most beautiful insect in the world, many have asked themselves if these wonderful creatures feel pain.
Butterflies do not feel pain because they do not have the pain receptors needed to do so. They may feel discomfort if they are damaged, but this does not equate to the suffering or emotions that vertebrates feel.
In this article, we dive a bit deeper into why butterflies don’t feel pain like humans do, and we’ll cover the sensation they feel when confronted with danger.
Butterflies Lack Pain Receptors
All vertebrates possess a backbone or spinal column. Our spines are full of nerves that extend throughout our body, picking up signals and sending them to the brain.
If we touch something that causes us pain, like a hot pan, sense receptors in our skin send this message through our nerves. First, they go to the spinal cord. There, they are moved up to the brainstem and into our brain for processing. Here we register the sensation of pain, allowing us to perceive and feel the pain.
Since butterflies do not have the nerves that hold pain receptors, they cannot go through this process. They do have a brain and a heart, but the center of a butterfly’s nervous system is not around the spine, as it is within vertebrates. Instead, their system is the subesophageal ganglion, located in the thorax.
One story found in the Adirondack Almanack cited the process of completing a wing transplant on a Monarch butterfly. This butterfly had fallen out of its chrysalis, maiming its right rear wing. Since it could not fly, Monarch specialists attempted a wing transplant.
The specialists first had to cut off the maimed part of the wing. They noted that this did not stress or hurt the butterfly, as it lacked pain receptors and remained fairly still for the process. They were able to glue a part of a wing from a previous year’s Monarch butterfly, attaching it with glue to the current butterfly.
Once the glue had dried, the operated butterfly was able to fly away without issue.
During this process, the butterfly remained on a flat surface. While it tried to walk away as an insect naturally would from humans, it did not show signs of distress during the transplant.
Another butterfly farm in Florida discovered that their butterflies did not feel pain from a strange experience. The owners of the farm noticed that mice were getting into the butterflies’ “apartments”, or living spaces. They thought that perhaps the mice were there to eat the fruit left out for the butterflies.
Soon after, they noticed that many butterflies would fly and flutter normally, only to fall forward when they landed. They would then straighten up and continue with their task. These butterflies were eating, flying, and even mating normally, so what was causing their rough landings?
After further inspection, the butterfly breeders were shocked to see that dozens of butterflies were missing their abdomens! That right – a huge chunk of their bodies had been eaten by the mice, yet the butterflies continue as if nothing had occurred. Males would even try to mate with females who did not have abdomens.
Even with almost half of their body removed, the butterflies continued on their merry way. The only difference was that their body’s equilibrium was thrown off, causing their rough landings.
Of course, a butterfly without an abdomen cannot live as long as one with all its body parts. The abdomen contains vital organs for life, including the digestive tract, spiracles for oxygen, and reproductive organs. While it might not have noticed that it was missing its abdomen, the butterfly would only live for about 18 hours afterward, while an average butterfly lives for about two weeks.
Do Butterflies Feel Discomfort?
Butterflies do not feel pain, but they may feel discomfort. For a butterfly, this is not an emotion so much as a physical response to danger.
When the butterfly experiences something that it interprets as dangerous, such as being held by a human or animal, it can become stressed. This stress is vital to the butterfly’s survival.
Stress allows the butterfly to initiate its fight or flight response, accelerating its heart rate. While butterflies have a heart, it’s not the same heart you envision within yourself. Instead, butterflies have a chambered heart that runs along the length of its body. This pumps hemolymph – the butterfly’s “blood” – along the body to its organs.
As stress affects its body, the butterfly experiences increased alertness of its sensors, allowing it to fly away as fast as it can.
This system allows the butterfly to interpret its surroundings and respond. Its response is not to avoid pain, but to promote survival. Some natural predators of butterflies, like ants, birds, snakes, rats, and dragonflies, prey on these beautiful creatures for food. Since the butterfly’s main goal is to mate and reproduce, its stress response gives it the best possibility of doing so without the need to feel hurt.
The next time you see a butterfly that seems damaged, fear not. While it may be inconvenienced, it is not experiencing pain over its predicament.
If it is extremely damaged and is not expected to live long, you can leave it as is or accelerate the process. One humane way to euthanize a damaged butterfly is to place it in a bag in the freezer for a few hours although, again, leaving it as it is also humane.
Without pain receptors, the most that butterflies can feel is disadvantaged or slightly uncomfortable. If you leave it where you found it, it will simply continue with its tasks as best it can and live out the rest of its life.
Do Butterflies Fart?
Yes, butterflies fart, particularly because they also have a belly of sorts and a rectum, which allows gasses to build-up due to digestion, leading to a fart release.
There is video proof on YouTube of a butterfly farting:
Do Butterflies Hibernate?
While it’s not the case for all butterflies, some butterflies can spend the entire winter hibernating, usually laid on twigs and leaves, where they’re able to camouflage themselves.
Do Butterflies Bite?
Butterflies are unable to bite because they don’t have a mouth or teeth, nor are they able to sting because they don’t have a stinger.
Do Butterflies Have Bones?
Unlike humans, a butterfly’s skeleton is not inside its body, but it’s on the outside and is called an exoskeleton. Like most insects, the exoskeleton of butterflies is formed by a bone-like material called chitin, which varies in thickness depending on the vulnerability of the organs it protects.