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Great Mormon Swallow Tail from Southeast Asia. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
Great Mormon Swallow Tail from Southeast Asia (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

What’s the difference between a moth and a butterfly? Not much, says entomologist Jeffry Petracca. 

“They have the same biology,” he says.

He would know. As assistant curator at the Long Island Aquarium & Exhibition Center’s Butterflies & Birds exhibit, he’s surrounded by 800 to 1,000 moths and butterflies almost daily. 

African Orchard Swallow Tail from sub Sahara. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
African Orchard Swallow Tail from sub Sahara (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

If we must nitpick — and we must — butterflies’ antennae tend to have a club-like tip, where moth antennae tend to be straight and hairlike, or even feathery, he said.

And one thing both types of insects are good at — aside from shedding caterpillar skin — is shedding stereotypes.

For instance, Mr. Petracca says, most people assume moths are nocturnal and dull in color compared to the more beautiful and vibrant butterflies we see in the sunlight.

Chinese Paper KIte. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
Chinese Paper Kite (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

“Moths tend to be nocturnal, but there are a lot of very vibrant moths out during the day,” he said. “And butterflies can also be very dull.”

And some species we all think are moths — such as the small, very white creature that flutters along lawns in the warmer months — are really butterflies.

“It’s called a cabbage white butterfly,” Mr. Petracca said. “It goes against the whole thing that moths are dull in color and butterflies are vibrant.”

Giant Atlas Moth from Southeast Asia (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
Giant Atlas Moth from Southeast Asia (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

The cabbage white is actually an invasive species, he added, explaining that it lays its eggs on garlic mustard, a pungent weed, and so is distasteful to would-be predators. Both moths and butterflies can be pests, he said, noting that the caterpillars of owl butterflies feed on and destroy banana crops in South and Central America.

Because of this, the Riverhead facility is regulated by the federal government.

“We have special permits to get these from other countries,” he said.

Owl butterflies from Costa Rica in the Amazon (Barbaraellen Koch)
Owl butterflies from Costa Rica in the Amazon (Barbaraellen Koch)

Among the species on exhibit in Riverhead, Mr. Petracca said the blue morpho and owl butterflies and the Atlas moth receive the most attention from visitors. The Atlas moth is the largest moth in the world — with a wingspan reaching up to 12 inches — and can rival any butterfly in a beauty contest.

Another fun fact: The Atlas moth lives its entire adult moth life without a mouth.

“Or at least, it’s a very reduced mouth,” Mr. Petracca says. “Either way, they don’t use it.”

Blue Morpho from the Amazon (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
Blue Morpho from the Amazon (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

But it’s never for long: most butterflies live for about two weeks, some less.

Learn about moths and butterflies by visiting the exhibition center at 431 East Main St. in Riverhead.

The 5,000-square-foot center also features an exotic bird display; an insects exhibit is coming this fall. Starting April 7, the exhibition center will be included in a general admission ticket to the aquarium at $26.50 for adults or $20.50 for kids and adults over 62. Visit longislandaquarium.com for more information.

Assistant butterfly curator Jeffry Petracca looking at a Giant Atlas Moth from Southeast Asia. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
Assistant butterfly curator Jeffry Petracca looking at a Giant Atlas Moth from Southeast Asia. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
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