WARNING: Aposematism Explained

by AMNH on

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If you’re trying to avoid a predator, hiding or otherwise using camouflage to make yourself hard to find is a common tactic.

It’s not always the best one, though. While some butterflies and moths attempt to blend into their surroundings to avoid being eaten, others are brightly colored and easy to pick out—but this is a form of defense as well!

Monarch butterfly shows off its patterned wings as it rests on a blooming goldenrod plant.
Orange and black Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) are among the most familiar and easily recognizable butterflies found in the vivarium.
Courtesy of bbarlow/Pixabay

Bright colors and distinctive wing patterns can be an example of aposematism, also known as a warning coloration. Butterflies like the monarch make no attempt to hide themselves; instead, their bright, orange-and-black warning coloration is like a neon sign advertising the toxic qualities that make these insects taste terrible. A bird that eats one of these butterflies remembers the experience—and avoids repeating it.

Paper kite butterfly
Paper kite butterflies (Idea leucunoe) like this one can be seen at The Butterfly Conservatory.
Courtesy of ABrewster

And it’s not always bright colors that indicate a lousy meal—sometimes, animals rely on striking contrasts to warn of their toxicity. You can see an example of a butterfly that takes this road, the paper kite, in The Butterfly Conservatory, open through May 29.

Some butterflies have found ways to simply fool their predators. Numerous nontoxic species have evolved wing colors and patterns that look almost exactly like those of the toxic species—a phenomenon called mimicry. Birds and lizards that have learned to avoid the bold warning colorations of poisonous butterflies leave these imitators alone, too. 

Of course, butterflies are far from the only animals that have developed this defense. Animals from many corners of the tree of life use coloration to tell predators not to mess with them, whether they pose a real threat or not. In this video inspired by the Museum’s Power of Poison exhibition, you can meet some of the many species that have perfected a poisonous palette.