Close Encounters with Butterflies at the Smithsonian

Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor), native to North and Central America

It is early February and there are still weeks of winter left to go. Most of the trees around the District are bare and, chances are, today’s forecast calls for rain. It’s enough to put a person in a winter funk. But what if I told you that there was a place in town with blossoming tropical plants, filled to brimming with gorgeous butterflies? The Smithsonian Butterfly Pavilion is just such a place and it’s worth a visit.

The butterfly pavilion at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History opened in 2007. At any one time, this enclosed 1,680-square-foot space hosts about 300 butterflies, representing 50 species from the U.S., Mexico, Central & South America, Africa, India, China, and Southeast Asia.

To keep the butterflies happy the pavilion’s temperature stays at a toasty 80 degrees with 80 percent humidity — not unlike your typical July day in Washington. (Pro tip: If you visit on a cold day, as I did, dress in removable layers!) The pavilion also contains about 30 species of nectar-producing tropical plants for the butterflies to sample.

Leopard Lacewings (Cethosia cyan) are native to China and India.

Each species has its own story to tell. Many have adaptations that make them less appetizing to predators.

Emperor Swallowtail (Papilio ophiduicephalus) from sub-Saharan Africa

For example, caterpillars for Swallowtail species can extend a smelly but colorful organ called an osmeterium. It resembles a snake’s forked tongue and its odor can drive predators away. Swallowtails even inspired the Pokémon character Caterpie, which also uses its own pungent osmeterium as a defense.

Common Morpho (Morpho peleides), top view

The Common Morpho, native to North, Central, and South America, has is bright blue on its top side. Interestingly, that shade isn’t caused by blue pigment. Rather, the blue we perceive is the result of the way in which the the Morpho’s wing scales diffract light.

Common Morpho (Morpho peleides), bottom view

The Morpho’s underside features large, eye-like spots that serve to intimidate predators.

Cattleheart (Parides iphidamas) of Central and South America

When a male Cattleheart mates with a female, it leaves a plug called a sphragis at the end of the female’s abdomen. This serves as a sort of chastity belt, preventing other males from mating with the female, thus assuring that only first male’s genetic material is passed along.

Paper Kite (Idea Leucono)

Paper Kites originate in Southeast Asia. Like other butterfly species in the subfamily Danainae, they have toxins in their bodies that make them less appetizing to birds that would otherwise eat them for lunch.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus)

Likewise, Monarch butterflies have toxins in their bodies that come from the milkweed they consumed as caterpillars. Monarchs are also known for their incredible migratory journey. North American Monarchs travel as far as 3,000 miles to winter in California and Mexico.

Various species of butterfly at the Smithsonian pavilion are also known to escape and “migrate” throughout the Natural History museum. Some make it as far as the Hall of Mammals, one floor below. When you visit, expect Smithsonian staff to inspect you as you exit the pavilion to detach any hangers on.

Don’t touch the butterflies! A visitor with a Giant Owl (Caligo memnon).

While at the pavilion, you may want to reach out and touch your winged friends, but please resist the urge. Butterflies can be delicate and should not be handled. However, there’s no reason for disappointment. If you play your cards right, a butterfly may choose to land on you.

Who’s to say that a wizard’s companion animal can’t be a butterfly?
This butterfly is a fan of the Syracuse Mets.
Leopard Lacewings (Cethosia cyan) appear partial to wool sweaters…
… and beards.

You too can have a close encounter with a butterfly at the pavilion! This exhibit is open from 10:15am to 5pm daily and timed tickets can purchased in person or online. Tickets are free on Tuesdays.

All photos are copyrighted to Miki Jourdan.

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