New Zealand’s butterflies and moths occupy a wide range of habitats, from rocky coasts to rugged mountains. One still undescribed species lives on ice-free rock faces 3,000 metres high. A few species are common and widespread, but many are rare or live in very small areas. Some have thrived with the arrival of humans, but many more have declined – over 110 species are threatened with extinction.
Some common butterflies
Of the New Zealand butterflies, two groups (admirals and coppers) are nationally and globally significant for their species richness.
Admirals are found worldwide, and three species occur in New Zealand. Yellow and red admirals are widespread on the mainland, especially at the edges of forests, on farmland, and where there are nettles (Urtica ferox), which the larvae eat and live on.
Butterflies and moths are popular subjects in art and design, adorning company logos, clothing and the exterior of homes nationwide. Many conspicuous species have appeared on postage stamps such as the magpie moth and red admiral. The $100 banknote features the elegant South Island zebra moth.
Chatham Island admirals are confined to those windswept islands.
The number and variety of copper butterflies in New Zealand is unrivalled worldwide. These mainly orange butterflies can be found throughout the country, including the high alpine zones. They have diversified into at least 40 species within four groups. No single species occurs nationwide, and many have very small distributions.
As with most New Zealand Lepidoptera, copper larvae are particular feeders – they eat only Muehlenbeckia of the dock family. This includes the tiny-leaved, ground-hugging M. axillaris and the extensive vines of M. australis, which can stretch 20 metres over the forest-edge canopy. Copper butterflies have their closest relatives in the cloud forests of New Guinea and in the temperate northern hemisphere.
Certain species of boulder copper butterflies are among the world’s smallest, with a wingspan of less than 1 centimetre. The largest New Zealand coppers have a wingspan of up to 3 centimetres.