The Frustrated Naturalist

It is so easy to tell butterflies from moths: just look at the antennae. If they have straight antennae ending in little clubs, then they are butterflies. The clubs could be nice and round, or long and slightly bent, or even slightly hooked. But if it is clubbed you have a butterfly. Otherwise you have a moth. Professional biologists learn to collect them into an order called Lepidoptera. Anything more than this begins to get frustrating, because 10% of all known species of animals are Lepidoptera. If you want to tell them apart, then you need to work through more than 120 families and eventually to 180,000 species. Impossible for us amateurs, isn’t it?

It is not just the numbers which are frightening. There are also the many species which look almost the same. Are the two in the photos above two different species? One has a much deeper colour than the other, of course. But they are the same size and shape. Also, the patterns on their wings are almost identical. With the photos in front of me, I can distinguish the pattern of dark streaks on the wings, and between the differences in colour and pattern, I’m almost certain that they are different species. But if one had been a little darker or the other a little lighter, or I saw them in bad light? I don’t think I would have been able to tell on the field which one I saw.

To compound the confusiuon see the two above. Do they have different wing shapes? One of them has moved its forewing back until it partly covers the hindwing. If it had held the wings out, they could have been the same shape. Does one often rest with its hindwings covered? Do both? You would have to learn to look away from the wings and at the snouts. One of them has a pointed snout, whereas the other seems to have a more rounded snout. That is probably the most telling difference between these.

The reason I persist in taking photos of moths and breaking my head over them is that some of them are really beautiful. Look at the pair above. The beautiful ashy grey is well-camouflaged against the rocks in this area. The mottled green and brown would almost disappear if it sat on a leaf. They clustered around external lights in Dilsher’s hotel all night and I could catch the last of them settled on stone walls when I woke up in the morning. I would spend the first fifteen minutes after waking up examining external walls with my camera.

All the moths I photographed in the morning were about the same size, between 1 and 2 centimeters across. At night I would see larger ones fluttering about lights. Presumably, being larger and more easily spotted, they are more wary of predators, and leave the exposed walls earlier in the morning. There were lots of smaller moths as well, but photographing them would have been finicky work with a macro lens. I would need a little breakfast before trying that, and on these holidays there were lots of other things to do after breakfast.

By I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.


  1. Butterflies and moths are fascinating. The only difference I remember learning about them is that moths aren’t as brightly coloured as the butterflies because they fly at night. Is that true?


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