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The order was named from the scales (“pollen”) which cover their wings. The entire exceptional diversity of colors and patterns of the wings of Lepidoptera is created by the structure and pigmentation of their scales.
The color generally is determined by varying kinds of pigments, but the brightest shining colors (iridescence, luster, and so forth) are caused by the very thin structure of the scale surface which causes the complex phenomena of refraction and diffraction.
Among the European Lepidoptera, the largest is the giant silk moth, or Saturnia pyri (12–15 cm).
There are also midget forms with wings about 3 mm across, for example, the pygmy moth (Stigmellidae).
The larvae, or caterpillars, have chewing mouth-parts.
The latter are extremely diverse, varying from setaceous to compound plumate antennae.The organs of vision in Lepidoptera are well developed.On the sides of the head are large hemispherical compound eyes consisting of an enormous number (up to 27,000) of om-matidia, which produce a general mosaic image.The auditory organs are located either in the area of the metathorax (owlet moths, prominents) or at the base of the abdomen (measuring worms and Pyralidae).The perceived sound waves lie in the high-frequency range (15–80 kilocycles per second).
The mouth is a sucking one in the form of a proboscis; it is curled up when in a resting position. The prothorax is poorly developed, with movable jointed processes called patagia.