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Student Tracks Butterfly Flower Preferences

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Katelyn gets to know the subjects of her experiment. 
Photo courtesy of Katelyn. 

When 12-year-old Katelyn took a field trip to a butterfly exhibit, she wondered why butterflies chose certain flowers over others when it came time to feed.

The question led Katelyn to conduct an experiment that tracked painted lady butterflies’ flower preferences. Her project, which earned her a 2011 Young Naturalist Award, is described in the essay Butterfly Buffet: The Feeding Preferences of Painted Ladies.

Katelyn hypothesized that butterflies given a choice of flowers would display a preference for certain colors or shapes. To test her idea, Katelyn set up elaborate mini-ecosystems, complete with various floral arrangements, and recorded each time a butterfly inserted its proboscis into a flower, paying special attention to whether butterflies returned to the same flower.

Her results showed that painted lady butterflies prefer purple flowers in clusters. Katelyn reasoned that butterflies may prefer the clustered shape because it gives them ample space for landing, and that their fondness for purple could be linked to the color receptors found in butterfly eyes. “Butterflies can see ultraviolet light,” explains Katelyn in her essay, “And purple is the wavelength of visible light closest to ultraviolet.”

Now that Katelyn is a step closer to understanding butterflies’ preferences, she’s determined to contribute to conservation programs that provide butterflies with their flowers of choice. She plans to set up a way station where monarch butterflies can land and feed during their long migration to escape cold winters.

To see live butterflies flutter and feed in a vivarium filled with their ideal flowers, visit The Butterfly Conservatory: Tropical Butterflies Alive in Winter at the Museum, which returns for another season on Saturday, October 8.

The Young Naturalist Awards is a nationwide, science-based research contest for students in grades 7 through 12 presented by the Museum. To learn more and to submit your own project, visit The deadline for the 2012 contest is March 9, 2012.

The Young Naturalist Awards are proudly supported by Alcoa Foundation.