What is a chrysalis?

Difference between a Chrysalis and a Cocoon

By: Editorial Staff | Updated: Dec-6, 2017

Did you know that a chrysalis and a cocoon are not the same? If this is not a surprise to you, great! But if this fact surprised you, don’t worry. You are not the only one who can’t tell the difference between a chrysalis and a cocoon. In this article, we will discuss the many differences between the two and why they should not be interchanged.

Summary Table

Chrysalis Cocoon
The protective outer layer of a butterfly pupa The silk casing spun by a moth larva around itself (some types of moth larvae may use larval hair or plants as well)
Opaque, hard, and shell-like Can be soft or hard, opaque or transparent, depending on the moth species creating it
Hangs from a twig, leaf, or branch Can be found on the ground, in crevices, or on a tree trunk


A chrysalis

A chrysalis is the hard skin that covers a butterfly pupa before it finally becomes a full-grown or adult butterfly.

When a butterfly larva is ready to transition into a pupa, it stops eating and then spins a pad of silk. This pad of silk has a velcro-like characteristic and is used by the caterpillar to attach itself to a twig or a leaf in an upside down or a “J” position. The caterpillar then “molts” or sheds its skin one more time to reveal a pupa. This pupa will then develop a hard outer layer which will become its safety shell while it prepares to transform into a mature butterfly. This protective shell, the chrysalis, usually adapts to the color of its surroundings.

A caterpillar building a silk cocoon

On the other hand, a cocoon is a silk casing created by a moth larva when it is ready to transform into a pupa.

Since the moth pupa does not have a hard shell, it creates a protective covering around itself by spinning silk instead. This silk cocoon eventually hardens to protect the pupa while it prepares to become a full-grown moth.

A cocoon can be soft or hard, transparent or opaque, solid or meshlike depending on the species of moth creating it. Some moth caterpillars use not only silk but also their larval hairs in making the cocoon, and others incorporate twigs and leaves to create a camouflage effect.

Cocoons can be found hanging from a leaf or twig, in a crevice, or even on a tree branch.

Chrysalis vs Cocoon

What, then, is the difference between a chrysalis and a cocoon?

The greatest difference between the two is that a chrysalis is the protective outer layer of a butterfly pupa, whereas a cocoon is the silk casing spun by a moth larva around itself.

A chrysalis is opaque, hard, and shell-like, whereas a cocoon can be soft or hard, opaque or transparent, depending on the moth species creating it. Moreover, a chrysalis is usually found hanging from a twig, leaf, or branch, whereas a cocoon can be found on the ground, in crevices, or on a tree trunk.

What is the difference between pupa, chrysalis and cocoon?

We recently received a question surrounding the use of the words pupa, chrysalis and cocoon when referring to moth and butterfly life stages. So we thought we would write a useful article addressing this for anyone who wishes to use the correct terminology.

Pupa, chrysalis and cocoon are all a part of many insect’s lifecycles, including moths and butterflies. However, they are not the same things. Here’s what they are in layman’s terms:

Pupa (plural: pupae or pupas)

A pupa is the life stage that moths and butterflies as well as other insects go through; it is the stage of transformation between larva and adult in a process known as metamorphoses, and the pupae of different groups of insects have different names.

In the case of butterflies and moths, that name is chrysalis.

Chrysalis (plural: chrysalises)

A chrysalis is a moth’s or butterfly’s pupa life stage. And so, this is the correct name to use when referring to a moth pupa or butterfly pupa. As mentioned previously, different groups of insects have different names. Tumbler for instance is the name for a mosquito pupa.

Cocoon (plural: cocoons)

A cocoon is simply the protective covering around a pupa or chrysalis. It is a protective silk covering spun by the larvae of an insect for protection as pupae. This isn’t to be confused with a shell, which is the protection some butterflies have instead of a cocoon.

Using the words correctly

So a pupa is an insect in a stage of transformation; pupae is the plural of pupa; the pupa life stage is called the pupal stage; chrysalis is the correct name to use for a moth pupa or a butterfly pupa; chrysalises is the plural of chrysalis; cocoon is the name to use for the outer layer that protects a pupa or chrysalis during metamorphoses.

Now, when referring to insects in this transformative stage, it can be easy to simply refer to them as ‘cocoons’ if they indeed have such a protective coating. However as we’ve discussed previously, this isn’t an entirely accurate description to use. It is not only better but also correct to use pupae if they are insects and you do not known the correct name for them or chrysalises if they are moths or butterflies.

So there we have it, a handy guide about the differences between pupa, chrysalis and cocoon. If you have any more questions like this be sure to let us know!

How caterpillars gruesomely transform into butterflies


The caterpillar’s metamorphosis from a tree clinging, 12-legged pest into the majestic flying butterfly is a frequent metaphor for total transformations. It’s truly a fantastic mechanism developed by nature, yet while it may seem fantastic from the outside, this transformation looks pretty gruesome deep inside the chrysalis. In short, for a caterpillar to turn into a butterfly, it digests itself using enzymes triggered by hormones. Then, sleeping cells (similar to stem cells) grow into the body parts of the future butterfly. So you thought puberty was mean? Wait till you read on.

A tough transformation

Image: Yahoo

Our story begins with a hungry caterpillar who had just hatched from an egg. Soon enough, the little caterpillar (scientifically known as a larva) stuffs itself with leaves, growing little by little. When they’ve outgrown their current skin, a hormone called ecdysone is released, instructing the larva to moult. After it moults about five times, the larva stops feeding, hangs upside down from a twig or leaf, and then either spins itself a silky cocoon or molts into a shiny chrysalis. This process is driven by the same hormone, ecdysone, but this time it works in conjunction with another hormone called the juvenile hormone. It’s actually the lack of the juvenile hormone that triggers the metamorphosis mechanism.
The juvenile hormone acts to delay metamorphosis throughout the whole larva stage. It works by blocking the genes in the imaginal discs — tiny disc-shaped bags of cells that kick into action when the caterpillar wraps itself in the chrysalis, eventually turning into an antenna, eye, wing or other butterfly bit. As such, the juvenile hormone is essential to the caterpillar’s survival prior to metamorphosis. You see, once the larva reaches its final moult and begins its metamorphosis, strange things happen to its body. Cells in the larva’s muscles, gut and salivary glands are digested and act as spare parts for the soon-to-be butterfly. Each cell is programmed to self-destruct through the activation of enzymes called caspases.
The caspases tear through the cell’s proteins, releasing prime butterfly-making material. Were it not for the juvenile hormone, this could have happened at any time, killing the caterpillar. Instead, nature programmed the hormone to lower its levels at the ideal moment for metamorphosis. With less juvenile hormone around, instead of inducing a regular moult, the ecdysone now drives the caterpillar to pupate. Once a caterpillar has disintegrated all of its tissues except for the imaginal discs, those discs use the protein-rich soup surrounding them to fuel the rapid cell division required to form the wings, antennae, legs, eyes, genitals and all the other features of an adult butterfly or moth. The imaginal disc for a fruit fly’s wing, for example, might begin with only 50 cells and increase to more than 50,000 cells by the end of metamorphosis.
Metamorphosis isn’t just some beautiful physical transformation, however. It’s a stunning display of evolutionary mechanism at work. Butterflies and caterpillars don’t just look different — they behave differently, too. One lives in trees, and the other flies. Most importantly, one eats leaves, and the other solely feeds on nectar. There’s plenty of room for both kinds to coexist in the ecosystem since they don’t interfere with each other’s food stocks. It’s brilliant!


Inside the cocoon

Image: Michael Cook, www.wormspit.com

Unfortunately, there is little footage that shows metamorphosis at work. The incredible photo pictured above was shot by Michael Cook, who managed to catch this Tussah silkmoth (Antheraea penyi) in a rare position – during a failed attempt to spin its cocoon. You can see the delicate, translucent jade wings, antennae and legs of a pupa that has not yet matured into an adult moth—a glimpse of what usually remains concealed within the cocoon.

Luckily, we live in the 21st century. Using modern imaging tech, like CT scans, we can peek inside the cocoon without disturbing this extremely delicate process. The video below was shot by scientists working at London’s Natural History Museum.

Tags: butterflycaterpillarlarva

Welcome to The Crossword Solver


‘BUTTERFLY PUPA’ is a 13 letter phrase starting with B and ending with A

Crossword clues for ‘BUTTERFLY PUPA’

Clue Answer
Butterfly pupa (9) CHRYSALIS

Synonyms, crossword answers and other related words for BUTTERFLY PUPA

We hope that the following list of synonyms for the word chrysalis will help you to finish your crossword today. We’ve arranged the synonyms in length order so that they are easier to find.

4 letter words


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11 letter words


Definition of chrysalis

  • pupa of a moth or butterfly enclosed in a cocoon

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