Cocoon Vs. Chrysalis (Explained in Simple Terms)

The key distinction is that a cocoon is a silk casing spun by certain insects, while a chrysalis is the pupal stage of butterflies during which they undergo metamorphosis. 

The term “chrysalis” is specific to these insects and refers to the pupal stage regardless of the external structure, while “cocoon” refers to the silk casing specifically spun by certain insects for protection during pupation.

What is the difference between a cocoon and a chrysalis?

Cocoons belong to moths, and chrysalises belong to butterflies. While they serve similar functions, how they make them, their structure, and where you can find them are quite different.

Structure

Moth pupae spin cocoons around themselves with soft silk casings or construct one from plant matter. The material hardens to create a protective casing, and the all depends upon the moth species.

Butterfly larval, on the other hand, molt into a hardened protective covering that’s more like an exoskeleton than a silky cocoon.

Purpose

Overall, cocoons and chrysalises are the same. Moth caterpillars and butterfly caterpillars use these structures to transform from the pupa stage into a moth or butterfly.

It serves two functions: protect them from the elements (and predators) and a place to undergo complete metamorphosis.

Formation

Moth larvae, like silkworms, spin an intricate cocoon of silk around their bodies that harden.

Butterfly pupa creates their chrysalises by attaching itself to a branch, and shedding their skin to create a hardened chrysalis.

Location

Moth cocoons are a little more hidden and harder to spot than chrysalises. Moth caterpillars bury their cocoons in leaf litter or bury themselves in the ground before emerging as adult moths.

Butterflies hang their chrysalises off tree branches high off the ground before emerging as adult butterflies.

Can you call a chrysalis a cocoon?

Yes, you can call a chrysalis a cocoon, but it’s not technically correct. If you are on a hike with a butterfly novice and point out a butterfly chrysalis, they might not know what you mean.

The term cocoon is often generally used as a blanket term for a protective shell. However, calling a chrysalis a cocoon isn’t scientifically correct.

Do butterflies come from cocoons or chrysalis?

Butterflies come from a chrysalis, but not all. This is where things get a little tricky. Most species of butterflies, like the Monarch butterfly, create a chrysalis. But there are some species, like the rare genus Parnassian that make a cocoon rather than a chrysalis.

There is one thing for certain, however, and it’s that no moth caterpillars make chrysalises. Some moth species don’t even make cocoons!

Do all caterpillars transform into chrysalis?

Yes, all caterpillars will eventually turn into chrysalis (or cocoons). Caterpillars that make a chrysalis will emerge as butterflies, while caterpillars that transform into cocoons will emerge as moths.

However, there are some instances where caterpillars will not undergo metamorphosis. If the caterpillar is undernourished, cannot find adequate food sources, or it’s sick, it will not transform.

Butterfly life cycle
Butterfly life cycle

Do any other insects make cocoons?

Moths and butterflies aren’t the only insects to master the art of cocoons and chrysalises! Insects like wasps, bees, fleas, and certain species of beetles make cocoons in their life stage.

Environments are harsh places for newly hatched insects at the larvae stage, and cocoons are perfect places to shelter them as they grow into the pupal stage.

Cocoons not only shelter insects from harsh weather conditions and keep them warm, but they also protect them from predators.

Can a chrysalis fly?

No, a chrysalis cannot fly. Once a caterpillar enters their chrysalis, they are completely helpless. If they are spotted by a predator, they have no means of escape.

Luckily, most species of butterflies create chrysalises that blend in with their environment. Many chrysalises hanging from tree branches blend in like leaves, so predators often don’t even notice them.

What happens if you cut open a chrysalis or cocoon?

First of all, never do this! It would be like plucking a flower right before it blooms. But don’t worry, you aren’t missing out on much.

When undergoing metamorphosis, caterpillars digest themselves and release an enzyme that dissolves their tissues. If you cut a chrysalis or cocoon at a certain point, it would ooze out caterpillar goo.

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