Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Butterfly Adaptations – How They Come By Their Colors


Go behind the scenes at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to meet Butterfly Pavilion Manager Eric Wenzel and Microscopy Educator Juan Pablo Hurtado Padilla. 

During this webcast, which originally aired May 24, 2018, Eric and Juan Pablo explore butterfly adaptations, with special regard to their colorful and patterned wings. Eric Wenzel shares butterfly collections from the Smithsonian, showing special adaptations such as mimicry, mimesis, and camouflage.  

Juan Pablo provides a closer look at the butterfly wings by placing them under the scanning electronic microscope (SEM), revealing the detailed wing structures that give the blue morpho butterfly its brilliantly iridescent blue color.  

The webcast concludes with a discussion about engineering applications of the unique way colors appear on butterfly wings. Students should come away with a new understanding of the roles of color in nature. 

This program originally aired as part of the Smithsonian Science How webcast series, which is designed to bring natural history science and research to upper-elementary and middle-school students.

Teaching Resources

Butterfly Colors and Biomimicry

National Middle School Standards

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

Life Science

MS-LS2 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics

  • MS-LS2-2: Construct an explanation that predicts patterns of interactions among organisms across multiple ecosystems.

MS-LS4 Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity

  • MS-LS4-4: Construct an explanation based on evidence that describes how genetic variations of traits in a population increase some individuals' probability of surviving and reproducing in a specific environment.

Physical Science

MS-PS4 Waves and Their Applications in Technologies for Information Transfer

  • MS-PS4-2: Develop and use a model to describe that waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through various materials.

Engineering Design

MS-ETS 1 Engineering Design

  • MS-ETS1-2: Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
Resource Type
Videos and Webcasts
Videos and Webcasts
Grade Level
Life ScienceEngineering and Technology
Life Science, Engineering and Technology