Butterflies and Skippers


Silver Spotted Skipper

Taxonomists have traditionally placed species in groups based on visible characters. The Skippers (Family Hesperiidae) share many visible characters with the butterflies and moths and are considered more “moth-like” than other families of butterflies. Taxonomists in the Pre-Molecular age hypothesized that the skippers were a stepping stone in the evolution of butterflies from moths.

The Molecular Age has given taxonomists many new characters for the reconstruction of phylogenies (evolutionary history). The changes to DNA (through descent with modification) leave patterns such that those groups most recently separated have a greater proportion of DNA in common. DNA from mitochondria has characteristics that are very useful for constructing phylogenies. Complete mitochondria DNA sequences are a published for over 100 species of butterflies and more are expected.

The molecular data from the DNA sequences clearly indicates that the Swallowtails (Papilionidae) not the Skippers (Hesperiidae) are the group most closely related to the moths. The Skippers are descended from the Swallowtails in their own branch of the phylogenetic tree. The other branch leads to all the other butterfly families. This analysis firmly embeds the Skippers within the butterflies. The biology of the Skippers is best understood as one of several families of butterflies.

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is an Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
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