Bejeweled wings

Once out of the chrysalis, most butterflies live for only a few days or weeks. Cheerful observers might conceive that the several hundred thousand butterflies preserved at Harvard have life everlasting (more or less). A thousand are on display into March at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. The collection as a whole is a research treasure. The representatives shown here, from Beauty on the Wing: The Double Lives of Butterflies, by no means include the greatest rarities. As to their beauty, they caught the eye of Harvard Magazine's photographer, but who can pick the fairest in the land?

Lepidoptera is a large order of at least 160,000 species, but only 18,000 are butterflies, in five families; the rest are moths. The exhibit artfully arranges related family members in five large vertical cases on a dazzling wall of butterflies. Shown on this page are brushfoots--including a species of Callicore whose hindwing seems to say 89--and swallowtails.

The exhibit is richly multifaceted. We are shown live ants tending caterpillars and may listen to the "singing" of the caterpillars recorded in the laboratory of Naomi Pierce, Ph.D. '83, Hessel professor of biology and curator of lepidoptera--pupal calls, larval grunts and hisses. We are reminded of former curator Vladimir Nabokov's work on the genitalia of blues. We admire a 35-million-year-old fossil butterfly. We push buttons to see why the iridescent morpho at lower right looks dull brown when lighted from behind and why when he flies through a jungle clearing, his "blue wings seem to flash on and off in the sunlight like a neon light." We read a handwritten note from a butterfly broker who sold the green birdwing at left, from Papua New Guinea, to the museum around 1900. "Carl v. Hagen who took this pair was afterwards eaten by the Papuans & the only thing he left his wife was about four pairs of these....I think you will agree you get them cheap for £14-10-0."

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