Cocoon Vs. Chrysalis – What’s The Difference Between A Chrysalis And A Cocoon

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By: Mary Ellen Ellis

Gardeners love butterflies,and not just because they are great pollinators. They’re also beautiful and funto watch. It can also be interesting to learn more about these insects andtheir life cycles. How much do you know about a cocoon vs. chrysalis and otherbutterfly facts? These two words are often used interchangeably but are not thesame. Enlighten your friends and family with these fun facts.

Are Cocoon and Chrysalis the Same or Different?

Most people understand that a cocoon is the structure acaterpillar weaves around itself and from which it later emerges transformed.But many also assume that the term chrysalis means the same thing. This is nottrue, and they have very different meanings.

The main difference between a chrysalis and a cocoon is thatthe latter is a life stage, while a cocoon is the actual casing around thecaterpillar as it transforms. Chrysalis is the term used to refer to the stageduring which the caterpillar transforms into the butterfly. Another word forchrysalis is pupa, although the term chrysalis is only used for butterflies,not moths.

Another common misconception about these terms is that thecocoon is the silk casing a caterpillar spins around itself to pupate into amoth or butterfly. In reality, a cocoon is only used by moth caterpillars.Butterfly larvae spin just a small button of silk and hang from it during thechrysalis stage.

Cocoon and Chrysalis Differences

Cocoon and chrysalis differences are easy to remember onceyou know what they are. It also helps to know more about the life cycle ofbutterflies in general:

  • The first stage is an egg that takes between four days and three weeks to hatch.
  • The egg hatches into the larva or caterpillar, which eats and sheds its skin several times as it grows.
  • The full-grown larva then goes through the chrysalis stage, during which it transforms into a butterfly by breaking down and reorganizing its body structures. This takes ten days to two weeks.
  • The last stage is the adult butterfly that we see and enjoy in our gardens.

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Butterfly Information

Information About Moths

Moths are sometimes mistaken to be butterflies because of the similarities in some species. Although, Moths are related to butterflies, there are some distinct differences between the two.

Moths belong to the Order of Lepidoptera, which is the same scienfifically classifed Order as the Butterfly. There are appoximately 160,000 species of moth in the world. Most species of moth are nocturnal and only come out at night, while butterflies are mostly diurnal and can be seen mostly in the daytime.

Moths evolved long before butterflies, fossils having been found that may be 190 million years old. Both types of lepidoptera are thought to have evolved along with flowering plants, mainly because most modern species feed on flowering plants, both as adults and larva. Moths are known to be attracted to, and often seen circling sources of light, although the reason for this behavior remains unknown

Some moths, particularly their caterpillars, can be a major agricultural pest in many parts of the world. Despite being notorious for eating clothing, most moth adults do not eat at all since since they don't have mouth parts instead, these moths drink nectar like most butterflies. Many of the larvae do eat fabric such as clothes and blankets made from natural wool or silk fibers.

The larvae of some moths are farmed for their economic value. The most notable is the Silkworm, which is the larva of the Bombyx mori. It is farmed for the silk from its cocoon and is a major agricultural industry. The larvae of many species are also used as food in some countries, particularly in Africa, where they are an important source of nutrition.

Differences Between Moths and Butterflies

There are many ways that can help identify a moth and distinguish it from a butterfly. Butterflies are typically larger in size and have more colorful patterns on their wings. Moths are typically smaller sized with more plain or drab-colored wings.

Moths tend to hold their wings in a tent-like manner that hides their abdomen. Butterflies tend to fold their wings vertically up over their backs. Moths also have a wing-coupling mechanism called a frenulum, which butterflies do not have.

A moth has an antennae that is feathery or saw-edged. A Buttefly's antennae are more club-shaped and have a long shaft and bulb at the end.

Moths are primarily nocturnal and only tend to fly around only at night, although some are seen in the daytime. Butterflies are primarly diurnal and tend to come out only in the day, however there are some species seen flying near dawn and dusk.

The Cocoon and the Chyrsalis is a protective covering for the pupa. The pupa is the intermediate stage between the larva and adult. A moth makes a cocoon, which is wrapped in a silk covering. A butterfly makes a chrysalis, which is hard, smooth and has no silk covering.

Some species of moths closely resemble butterflies in appearance. The Urania leilus, is a colorful day flying moth from Peru. The Castinoidea moths, found in Indonesia and Australia have brightly colored wings, clubbed antenna, and also out in the daytime.

Moths and Butterflies have a few characteristics in common both have scales, which are actually modified hairs, that cover their bodies and wings

There are many more species of Moth in the world than Butterfly. Butterflies and moths are both part of the Lepidoptera order. Moths make up around 90 percent of the Lepidoptera order, while butterflies and skippers make up about 10 percent. Both the butterfly and the moth are holometabolous, meaning that they undergo a complete metamorphosis from egg to caterpillar, to cocoon or chrysalis to fully formed adult. The smallest known moths are from the pygmy moth family (Nepticulidae) with wingspans as small as 3/32 of an inch. The largest known moths are the Atlas moths (Saturniidae) with wingspans as large as 12 inches.


Photos, videos and information on Monarch Butterflies and Milkweed


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Detailed photos, information and videos on the Monarch chrysalis stage.

This page shows photos and videos taken of Monarch chrysalises raised inside. There are some stages to a chrysalis, from the moment it starts moving inside the ‘J’ phase caterpillar to detach itself from it from the inside, to the last stage where it turns black and orange and we can see the butterfly inside, ready to emerge.

(More general information on the Monarch butterfly can be found here.)

The ‘J’ phase of a Monarch caterpillar doesn’t last long, about 10-12 hours depending on the temperature. When the time to pupate comes, the caterpillar undergoes some changes. If you want to watch the chrysalis come out of the caterpillar, you need to keep an eye on the tentacle changes and the body movements.

Tentacles: When close to turning into a chrysalis, the tentacles (which are NOT antennae, but still are sensing organs) at both ends of the caterpillar will become limp and twisted, emptied of their fluids (photo to the right, below).

Body Movements: the caterpillar periodically bends its upper body closer to the rest, and relaxes it somewhat. This is accompanied by repeated head ‘noddings’. You can tell that there’s something going on inside.

Then as the time to turn into a chrysalis gets closer, general body contractions will start in waves, pushing the caterpillar skin up and stretching the lower part behind the head. This is where the skin eventually splits lengthwise and the chrysalis gradually bulges out.

The first video shows a caterpillar in the ‘J’ phase about one hour prior to pupating into a chrysalis:

This video below is of the same caterpillar around 30 minutes before pupating. Note that the general waving movements have started, where the chrysalis inside detaches itself from its caterpillar skin:

Most of the time the fresh chrysalis, with all its pushing and twisting into the silk pad, will be able to completely detach its empty caterpillar skin, which then falls to the ground. Below are two exceptions, but they had no impact on the butterflies that emerged from those chrysalises.

Below are videos of caterpillars turning into a chrysalis, shown in real time. There comes a point where, as the chrysalis comes out, it doesn’t hold onto much. This happens just before it attaches its own cremaster hook to the silk pad, when the caterpillar skin is pushed up and still attached to the silk pad by its last pair of prolegs.

What the chrysalis needs to do at that point is pull out its own black cremaster hook from under the old caterpillar skin, and send it up until it reaches the silk pad.

As soon as the chrysalis hook makes contact with the silk pad, we can see an acceleration in the body movements of the chrysalis – it twists right and left trying to push its cremaster hook as deep as it can into the silk pad.

At the same time it needs to detach the prolegs of its old caterpillar skin from the same silk pad, and push that skin off. This is a crucial time for the chrysalis, and as soon as it reaches that point, it stops the frantic twisting and jerking, and will only repeat some of those movements mildly in the ensuing couple minutes, just to make sure the hook is secure.

This video below gives a better view of the black cremaster hook. The tip of this hook is made of dozens of tiny hooks that the chrysalis pushes into the silk pad. The result is something very solid, a velcro-like fastening.

Why call this section ‘regular‘ chrysalis? If you look at the fresh chrysalis photos and videos above, and compare with the photos below of chrysalises a few days old, you will notice a number of differences. The changes actually take place not long after the chrysalis emerges.

Color: the new chrysalis still shows some yellow and white barring from its time as a caterpillar, but after a few hours the color becomes a uniform light green and it turns more opaque. The chrysalis green color also changes as the butterfly forms inside.

Shape: the fresh chrysalis is about half abdominal rings with the lower part showing the future butterfly head, antennae and wings. After a few hours though, the shape is smooth and almost a uniform cylinder.

Golden dots collar: The typical golden and black dots ‘collar’ that is near the top of the regular chrysalis is around the middle when the chrysalis has just come out, and it has more white than golden.

Male or female? Please go to this page for how to find the sex of a Monarch chrysalis

The time a Monarch chrysalis takes to emerge as a butterfly varies according to the temperature – the warmer the shorter the period. This period can vary from 9 to 14 days approximately. During that time, the chrysalis undergoes some visible changes in its color, getting increasingly darker.

At the same time, the chrysalis envelope gets thinner and transparent, so that we can actually see the butterfly forming – the orange and black wings, the black body with its white spots, and the abdominal segments at the top.

Generally these noticeable changes occur in the last 48 hours of the chrysalis stage. But of course, the butterfly development inside is a continuous process, it’s just that we don’t see most of it.

I had a caterpillar that turned into a chrysalis in a lilac outside. After surviving a bad storm (see photo above) I brought it inside (the three photos below) without wiping it. It kept its little rain drops till the end! Note the change in color between the first photo and the third one. For more photos when this chrysalis turns into a butterfly, please visit this page.


There is a visible difference between the two photos below of the same chrysalis, 1 hour 53 minutes apart. The top part above the golden dot ‘necklace’ is smooth at 8:49 am (left), but on the right photo (10:42 am) we can now clearly see the abdominal segments through the chrysalis envelope.

Another indication that the Monarch butterfly is going to emerge soon is when it gets detached from the chrysalis envelope. The butterfly from the chrysalis below emerged as a female about 30 minutes following the last photo.

The photos below show the inverted ‘V’ pattern on the chrysalis. When the butterfly emerges, the thin and dry chrysalis envelope tears up along those ‘V’ lines, starting at the bottom.

Butterfly Chrysalis Size Variation

Extreme differences in size of butterfly chrysalises are normally caused by other reasons that genetic variation. What are some of the other causes?

Butterflies within the same species naturally vary in size.

Natural (good) reasons for size variation:

Eastern Black Swallowtail female chrysalises are larger than male chrysalises.

Monarch male chrysalises are larger than female chrysalises.

Just as with other animals, sometimes a gene will cause someone to be much smaller or much larger than other of the same species

Other reasons for size variation:

The caterpillar did not eat enough food.

Not enough food available

Aggressive caterpillars push passive caterpillars from the food

Temperature too cold or too hot for caterpillars to eat (they cannot regulate their temperature)

Caterpillar diseased, causing lack of appetite

Host plant, while acceptable, is not favored by the caterpillar (much like us being offered stale bread)

Food contaminated with other substances, changing flavor of food (sometime splashed or spilled or was sprayed on the food)

Tender leaves have been eaten and only old tough leaves remain on the plant

Why would a caterpillar eat another or a chrysalis?

Sometimes a caterpillar eats eggs, another caterpillar, a pre-pupa, or a chrysalis, even when there is enough food. Why?

A monarch caterpillar eating a pre-pupa

When we stop to think about it, we realize that an caterpillar is simply a mature egg plus host plant. A pre-pupa is addition of time and more host plant. A chrysalis is the addition of … you get the idea.

Because a caterpillar, pre-pupa, and chrysalis are made entirely of the host plant, so to speak, the taste of the insect would be tasty to caterpillars that eat the same host plant, whether they are the same species or not. We know that some caterpillars that eat distasteful plants are distasteful to many predators. The taste of the host plant controls the taste of the insect.

An egg about to hatch was eaten by a caterpillar, leaving the head of the caterpillar. Another egg has been hollowed out.

The instinct of some species of caterpillars, when they hatch, is to eat its egg shell. Once that shell is eaten, if there is another egg nearby, that instinct may cause it to continue eating eggs.

A painted lady caterpillar had eaten half another caterpillar. (At the time it began eating the other caterpillar, there was food in the container. They were moved for the photo.)

Although it happens more often when caterpillars are contained and run out of food, cannibalism happens even when there is plenty of food available.

Cloudless sulphur caterpillars are well known for cannibalism, out in nature. Even on a large host plant, they often attack and eat other caterpillars. They are one species that are often raised separately, one per plant stem.

Pipevine swallowtails and gold rim (polydamas) swallowtails are extremely cannibalistic in captivity. Once they are near pupation, many farmers raise them separately. As young caterpillars, they are gregarious, staying together on a leaf. Once they grow to three or four instars, they naturally separate on the plant.

Pipevine swallowtail caterpillars are gregarious.

To be safe, simply make sure they have plenty of food and learn which species tend to cannibalize in captivity. Separate them at the appropriate age.

Watch the video: What Is the Difference Between a Pupa and a Cocoon?


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