Butterflies of the world

As the Easter holidays arrive, the Natural History Museum invites visitors on an expedition across four continents with a new family exhibition featuring hundreds of butterflies from across the world.

Butterfly Explorers features a butterfly house which shows the wildly varied environments butterflies live in throughout North America, Africa and Asia as well as the heart of the Amazon rainforest in South America, where there are more butterfly species than anywhere else on Earth.

Visitors can travel through the exhibition, moving from continent to continent, spotting and identifying butterflies, collecting passport stamps and learning how butterflies live in many different parts of the world. It also features a hatchery room, which gives a close-up look at the butterfly life cycle from pupa to butterfly, a rare opportunity to see tropical butterflies emerging from their chrysalises.

The garden is devoted to some of the 58 butterfly species that live in the UK, with tips for attracting these butterflies to visitors’ own gardens. While following the success of the Museum’s butterfly exhibitions in 2008 and 2009, Butterfly Explorers features a wider geographical spread of butterflies than has ever before been seen at the Museum. Among the butterfly species are the common mormon (Papilio polytes), blue morpho (Morpho peleides) and monarch (Danaus plexippus).

Some species of butterfly reflect the state of our environment’s health and must adapt to their changing habitats. The exhibition also features many examples of the wonders and peculiarities of butterfly behaviour, such as:

-charaxes butterflies fly so fast and are so powerful that it is possible to hear them crashing into each other during mid-air duels

-glasswings drink poisonous sap from heliotrope leaves, which they store in their bodies to make themselves taste unpleasant to potential predators

-monarch butterflies are long-distance travellers, flying across America to Mexico every autumn

-the woolly bear caterpillar lives in the Arctic and spends most of the year frozen solid at temperatures of -50?C or below

With growing concern over the future of butterflies, the exhibition highlights issues facing different species. In North America, butterflies feast on the wild flowers of prairie grasslands, but this biodiverse habitat has been largely destroyed by farms growing a single crop. Similarly, Asia is home to many of the most spectacular butterfly species, but deforestation to support the growing human population is threatening its wildlife. But conservation programmes can achieve remarkable results. In the UK, the large blue has been brought back from extinction and we now have the largest population in Europe.

The exhibition runs from 8 April to 26 September 2010 and tickets can be booked at www.nhm.ac.uk.