Open accessibilty tools

Peacock Butterfly



Peacock butterfly (Image courtesy of Middlesbrough Museums Service; photography by Dave Charnley)

Did you know…?

A peacock butterfly can make a hissing noise by quickly rubbing its wings together to scare away predators.

Look closer at the image of a peacock butterfly

  • What three words would students use to describe a peacock butterfly?
  • Why do they think it is called a ‘peacock’ butterfly?
  • How might the spots on the butterfly’s wings protect it from predators?
  • What do students think a butterfly’s eyes and tongue (proboscis) might look like? They can look at this close-up image of a butterfly’s head. Were they right?

What type of animal is a peacock butterfly?

Peacock butterflies are insects. They have an exoskeleton (a hard coating on the outside of the body, rather than bones inside), three major body parts, six jointed legs and at least one pair of antennae. There are about 60 different species of butterfly in Britain, each with distinctive, often brightly coloured, wings.

Butterflies are important for a number of different reasons: firstly, because they are pollinators, helping fruits, vegetables and flowers to produce new seeds. Unlike bees, they don’t purposefully look for pollen, instead, it clings to their legs as they search different flowers for nectar.

Butterflies are also important because they are known to respond quickly to change. This makes them excellent indicators of the health of the environment. A reduction in the numbers of a particular species of butterfly is a warning that other wildlife may also be in trouble.

And butterflies are important to us, simply because of the pleasure these beautiful creatures bring as they flutter around our gardens, parks and countryside.

Where do peacock butterflies live?

Peacock butterflies live in woods, gardens, parks, hedgerows, meadows and coastal areas. They need plenty of nectar-rich flowers, and leaves to shelter under in cooler or rainy weather.

What do peacock butterflies eat?

Peacock butterflies are herbivores, feeding on nectar from flowers. They particularly like buddleia, which is so popular with butterflies it is sometimes known as ‘the butterfly bush’. The caterpillars of the peacock butterfly like to eat stinging nettles.

How are peacock butterflies adapted to their habitat?

Peacock butterflies famously have four brightly coloured ‘eye’ spots on their wings. They use these to scare or confuse predators.

In complete contrast, the underside of their wings is dark and looks like dead leaves. This acts as camouflage when their wings are folded upwards. They have a long, coiled tongue (called a proboscis), which they use to suck up nectar.

Are peacock butterflies endangered?

Three quarters of British butterflies are in decline. In the last 150 years, four species have become extinct. The main cause is thought to be habitat loss due to changes in land use, such as for intensive farming, housing, transport industry and other developments.

It is also thought they are affected by climate change. More than a quarter of UK butterflies are spreading north as temperatures rise, losing their habitats as a result.

Although peacock butterflies are doing well and are not thought to be under threat, butterfly counts in 2020 and 2021 showed large drops in their numbers – and in the numbers of butterflies and moths in general.

Although the reasons for this are not clear, scientists believe this was due to earlier springs with warmer and wetter weather. They are concerned for the future of these creatures with more extreme weather events predicted as a result of climate change.

Local links

Despite its recent fall in numbers, the peacock butterfly is still widespread in the Tees Valley. Look out for them fluttering around gardens, parks and woodland. You might also see them near railways and on waste ground where buddleia – one of its favourite flowers – grows.

Our museums have lots of exciting sessions for schools, exploring butterflies and other insects.

  • Preston Park Museum and Grounds includes a walled garden and a woodland walk which are both rich habitats for all kinds of creatures. During the spring and summer months, schools can book into a Minibeasts session and use special equipment to search for and explore all kinds of insects – including butterflies of course. Find out more here.
  • The grounds are also home to Butterfly World. Find out more here.
  • The Dorman Museum’s Wriggle and Crawl session uses its fascinating natural history collection to explore butterflies and bees. Find out more here.
  • A range of wildlife sessions are also available at our other museums. Find out more about sessions for Key Stage 1 here and Key Stage 2 here.

What can we do to help butterflies?

  • Attract butterflies to your school grounds with these tips from the Woodland Trust
  • Students could make a simple butterfly feeder like this one from the Natural History Museum
  • Join the big butterfly count – a nationwide survey helping to assess the health of our environment. This is a great way for students to learn to identify butterflies while contributing to this important initiative. Thousands of people take part every year and it is now the world’s biggest survey of butterflies. Find out how to get involved and download resources here.
  • The Natural History Museum has this guide to creating a wildlife-friendly garden.

Find out more

  • BBC Video – how caterpillars change into butterflies. Can students spot the peacock butterfly at the end of this video?
  • Butterfly conservation – information, images and fact files on different UK species of butterfly, plus information on butterflies to look out for in the North East.
  • RSPB – butterfly information and fact files.