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One Week Left to Visit The Butterfly Conservatory

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On Exhibit posts

There's just a few days left to see The Butterfly Conservatory at the American Museum of Natural History.

While you're visiting the exhibition, it’s easy to pick out the paper kites (Idea leuconoe) with their striking—dare we say sophisticated?—color pattern of black and white.

The species, also known as the large tree nymph and the rice paper butterfly, is a perennial at the popular seasonal live-animal exhibition, which is overseen by David Grimaldi, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology. Denizens of dense forests and coastal mangrove swamps, paper kites range from Thailand to Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Borneo.

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

Their large wings—spanning up to 4.5 inches—allow them to glide, even sail through their habitat. While the wings are somewhat yellowish toward the body, the highly recognizable black and white markings may serve a protective purpose: warning off predators familiar with the species’ unpleasant taste, caused by a toxin called danaidone that is passed by the male to the female during mating.

“It is very likely that they do advertise themselves,” says Dr. Grimaldi, noting, however, that more typically animals that are warningly colored (aposematic) tend to have red, yellow, and black in a banded pattern, as seen in various
insects, frogs, snakes, and butterflies.

The paper kite was first described in 1834 by German entomologist Wilhelm Ferdinand Erichson (1809–1848) from a specimen found on what was then the Philippine island of Luçon, today known as Luzon. Erichson was a physician who became enthralled with entomology during his university years, publishing his first entomological papers while still studying medicine. Although he died just short of turning 40, his career in entomology was exceptional, especially his role in the study of rove beetles, compiling the first complete worldwide classification of the family Staphylinidae.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Erichson was a genius and one of the most important, if not the most important, entomologists of all time,” wrote Museum Curator Emeritus Lee Herman in the July 18, 2001, Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, comparing Erichson’s effect on the field to Mozart’s in music. “They both made an enormous impact in their respective fields, but they both died very young. We are left to guess what would have happened had they both had longer lives."

Today, the paper kite is an especially popular choice for live butterfly exhibits like The Butterfly Conservatory. Its slow, lumbering flight makes it easy to study up close and to photograph. It’s also “friendly”—tending to land on visitors and return to them again and again.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of the Member magazine Rotunda.