Travel Tools from The Unofficial Guide™ Team  -  See Our Books Here!
  • Background Image

    Butterflies, Plants, and Insects

Butterflies, Plants, and Live Insects

This gallery explains how evolution creates diversity, using butterflies and flowers as an example. More than 170 million years ago, there were neither flowers nor butterflies. The fossil record shows, however, that 5 moth species existed, flying at night and feeding on plant pollen and leaves. Flowers first appear in the fossil record around 102 million years ago, bringing nectar as a new food source. Moths seem to have evolved a short, tube-like tongue to eat the nectar, and the moths’ flying from flower to flower helped to pollinate these new plants.

A giant meteor caused a mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period around 65 million years ago, taking with it the dinosaurs and most other forms of life. It took millions of years for the earth to be repopulated, and with the old species wiped out, new forms of life sprang up. Some of the plants that evolved during this time were deep-throated flowers, whose pollen and nectar were hard to reach. Several moth species evolved even longer tongues to reach this food, however, and around 48 million years ago we see the first daytime moths – butterflies.

Like moths, butterflies use their antenna to sense wind and smell food. However, butterflies seem to have also acquired the ability to navigate using the sun’s ultraviolet light, letting them fly during the day. Flying during the day would have allowed butterflies to avoid their main predators – bats and owls – which feed mainly at night. However, birds would also feed on butterflies, and the displays here point out how butterflies developed colorful camouflage to blend in with the flowers around them.

Also in this hall is a Live Butterfly Pavilion, a remarkably large, plastic dome holding thousands of actual butterflies and the plants that support them. There’s a separate charge (around $7 per person) to enter the pavilion, and often a short wait because of its limited capacity. Once inside, however, there are additional displays on the co-evolution of butterflies, moths, and plants.

Beyond the butterflies is the Live Insect Zoo, ingeniously sponsored by Orkin Pest Control. The main draws here are the various insect terraria, with land- and water-based bugs. Most of these glass cases are arranged a foot or two off the ground, at the correct height for small children to peer into without being held by an adult. For each insect, the museum explains its typical habitat, diet, and lifecycle. In the case of water-based insects, there’s an informative illustration of how insects “breathe” under water by trapping small air bubbles next to their bodies. The largest of the insect displays is a life-size termite mound, used to illustrate how insect societies work together to support a colony.

The middle section of the zoo explains the evolutionary traits that allow insects to populate every nook, cranny, and crack on earth: high reproductive rates, short lives, and specialization. That allows billions of tiny gene crossover and mutations to happen every day, ensuring that different biological forms get tested.

Using these evolutionary traits, insects have developed a range of defenses to predators, including the camouflage described earlier, and mimicry of markings. In the case of mimicry, an insect will adopt the coloration and markings of another insect that’s known to be distasteful to predators, because the predators leave those bugs alone.

Unofficial Tip: If you want your kids to ever sleep at night, walk quickly past the next part of the tour, which includes huge bugs from 300 million years ago, such as giant cockroaches, scorpions, spiders, and more.

Farther down the gallery is a large interactive display showing how insects live in and around our houses. It features kid-sized computer screens and chairs, allowing kids to explore several species found in most homes. There’s also a wall-size display discussing what an entomologist does, and a game where kids try to match the insects to the things they produce (bees make honey, some works produce silk, and so on).

After the insects is a relatively small area with Egyptian mummies, artifacts, and the religious beliefs behind them. To prepare a deceased family member for the afterlife, they were often buried with the things they’d “need”, such as cooking utensils, tools, and other everyday objects. Also buried with the dead were offerings to the gods, in the form of animal mummies, such as cats, crocodiles, and birds – even a highly prized Apis bull mummy.

Also featured in these displays are intricately decorated Egyptial burial masks and sarcophagi. One, the coffin of a woman named Tentkhonsu, is decorated with a mural that tells the story of how the gods will test her heart for virtue after death, before deciding whether to grant her soul rebirth.

Other Lands at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History