- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2008

Catching sight of a solitary butterfly flittering among flowers has been taken to a new level at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Seeing dozens only requires a walk through the museum’s new Live Butterfly Pavilion, which opened Feb. 15, although sighting all of the exhibit’s 400 or so butterflies might take some time and effort.

Butterflies from 30 to 40 domestic and tropical species are part of a new permanent exhibit called “Butterflies + Plants: Partners in Evolution.” The two parts of the exhibit include the pavilion and an exhibition hall with displays depicting the history of and facts about butterflies and moths.

“It is simply breathtaking and magical,” says Elizabeth Duggal, associate director for external affairs and public programs for the museum.

The National Museum of Natural History raised $3 million from private donors to develop the exhibit, which will operate on an annual budget of $800,000 to $1 million.

The exhibit gives a close-up look at how butterflies and plants have evolved over millions of years and how these organisms changed and diversified through their interactions with one another. The history of moths and butterflies and their coevolution with plants, along with their metamorphosis from larvae to chrysalides to winged insects are depicted in murals, timelines, videos, photographs, insect samples and fossil specimens. Other organisms, including hummingbirds, bees, flies, ants and beetles, and their interactions with plants are included in the depictions.

“Everybody loves butterflies,” says Ted Schultz, research entomologist at the museum, who holds a doctorate in entomology. “What most people don’t know is that butterflies are a special kind of day-flying moth.”

Visitors to the exhibit will learn that moths first appeared 170 million years ago at a time when plants lacked flowers. Butterflies came into existence 70 million years later with the appearance of flowering plants. Today, there are approximately 350,000 species of flowering plants and more than 150,000 kinds of moths and butterflies.

“This is the story that unfolds and flutters before your eyes,” Ms. Duggal says.

The exhibit is on the museum’s second floor in the former entomology office, which in 2003 became a temporary gallery. In 2005, the mezzanine was removed and the hall was renovated to make way for the 3,700-square-foot interactive and educational exhibit, designed by Smithsonian entomologists, botanists and paleontologists.

“It gave us a chance — butterfly houses are so well received — to do something educational and active and to have a show on coevolution,” says Elizabeth Musteen, project manager of the exhibit.

The 1,200-square-foot pavilion — a curved structure to give the creatures room to fly — features an aromatic tropical garden with warm, humid air and full-spectrum lighting, replicating the butterflies’ native climates. Butterfly species from Africa; Asia; and North, Central and South America interact with a variety of plant species, including jasmine, flowering maples, butterfly bushes and orchids. The monarchs, tree nymphs, queens and other kinds of butterflies are purchased from butterfly farms around the world and are introduced weekly to the pavilion. The creatures must be replaced regularly; they live for just two weeks to two months.

“They seem to delight in flying around your face,” Ms. Musteen says. “They slightly tickle.”

The pavilion has a built-in emergence chamber that gives visitors a view of the final stages of metamorphosis from chrysalis to butterfly.

Visitors entering and exiting the pavilion must walk through sealed chambers to help prevent the butterflies from escaping. They are given rules for the pavilion, including that they should not touch the colorful insects and should watch where they step.

“We don’t want non-natives to get out in the environment,” says Nathan Erwin, the exhibition manager.

When you go:

Location: “Butterflies + Plants: Partners in Evolution” is a new permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Constitution Avenue at 10th Street Northwest.

Hours: Winter hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily; from May 23 to Aug. 31, the museum will be open until 7:30 p.m. daily.

Admission: The entrance fee for the Live Butterfly Pavilion is $6 for adults, $5 for children ages 2 to 12, and $5.50 for seniors age 60 and older. Admission is free on Tuesdays. Tickets can be purchased up to two weeks in advance by calling 202/633-4629 locally or 877/932-4629 or going online at https://butterflies.si.edu. Tickets also are available at the museum. The fee helps defray costs associated with populating the pavilion.

Parking: On-street parking is limited. The closest Metro stops are the Smithsonian or Federal Triangle stops on the Orange and Blue lines.

More information: 202-633-1000; www.mnh.si.edu

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