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The Butterfly Conservatory

This is one of the museum's most popular annual seasonal exhibitions. Butterflies and moths make up a large group of insects known as the Order Lepidoptera (lep-i-DOP-ter-ah). The name--from the Greek lepido, "scale", and ptera, "wings"--refers to a prominent feature of adult butterflies and moths, the tiny scales that cover the wings and the rest of the body.

Adult butterflies are wonderfully diverse in shape, size, and color. Active during the day, they live almost everywhere around the world, from Arctic tundra to tropical rain forests.

There are more than 250,000 known species of Lepidoptera, of which about 18,000 are butterflies. Based on their anatomy, butterflies are classified into five families. This exhibition features butterflies from three of the families: the Pieridae (PYAIR-i-dee), commonly known as whites and sulphurs; the Papilionidae (pah-pill-ee-ON-i-dee), or swallowtails; and the Nymphalidae (nim-FAL-i-dee), which includes morphos, longwings and others.

Exhibition Highlights




Butterfly wings are made of hardened membrane, strengthened by veins and covered by tiny scales. Each scale is a single color. The intricate designs of butterfly wings are produced by thousands of scales, arrayed in complex patterns and overlapping one another like shingles on a roof.




The butterfly vivarium is a custom-fabricated, temporary shell structure that sits within one of the Museum's existing galleries. It has been designed to be a "kit of parts" that can be broken down, stored, then reinstalled in future years.




The butterfly begins life as an egg, emerges as a caterpillar, and then undergoes a complete change in body form during development--a dramatic metamorphosis.
The wormlike butterfly larva, or caterpillar, looks nothing like a winged adult.




Butterflies have evolved in remarkable ways that help them avoid being eaten by birds, lizards, and other predators.
We think of butterfly wings as being colorful, but many are relatively drab on the underside. Some butterflies protect themselves through camouflage--by folding up their wings, they reveal the undersides and blend in with their surroundings.




Our understanding of butterfly origins is based on the study of living Lepidopteran species.
We can often learn about evolution from the fossil record, but there are relatively few butterfly fossils. Those that do exist, like the 40-million-year-old Prodryas persophone, are remarkably similar to modern-day forms--so the fossil record sheds little light on the origin of today's butterflies.




Because of their interactions with plants and other animals, butterflies play an important role in the web of life.
Butterfly caterpillars are voracious plant-eaters, yet they play an important role in plant survival. It has been estimated that arthropods--the large group of animals that includes all insects--consume 20 percent of the earth's vegetation each year.




During this century butterfly diversity has decreased alarmingly in some parts of the world, pointing to the need for better environmental management and public education.
The greatest threat to the world's butterfly species is the ongoing loss of suitable habitat.




Frequently Asked Questions


Reference List

Grow a Butterfly Garden

A butterfly garden, large or small, can attract butterflies to your back yard. Here are some tips for creating your own garden:


Educator Guide, Online Resource

For Educators

Use these free online resources before or after your visit to further explore themes presented in the Butterfly Conservatory exhibition.

The Butterfly Conservatory is organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York (

Lord & Taylor is the proud sponsor of The Butterfly Conservatory.


The Butterfly Conservatory

American Museum of Natural History

Central Park West at 79th Street
New York, NY 10024-5192
Phone: 212-769-5100

Open daily from 10 am - 5:45 pm
except on Thanksgiving and Christmas
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