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Destination: 1,000 Blue Morpho butterflies at the Museum of Life and Science

Posted July 4, 2013

The Blue Morpho butterfly, a stunning creature from Costa Rica, is known for its large size and vivid blue upper side.

But there's more to that blue than just beauty. And as the Museum of Life and Science in Durham releases 1,000 total Blue Morpho butterflies throughout the month of July in its Magic Wings Butterfly House, the lesson is as much about aesthetics as it is about science.  

You see, the upper side isn't blue because of a pigment.

"It's the nanostructure of the wings," Uli Hartmond, butterfly house director, tells me. "Depending on the angle you're looking at them, the color will vary somewhat." 

The vivid blue coloring comes from thousands of microscopic scales on the backs of the butterfly's wings which reflect light to give them an iridescent glow, according to the museum. Blue Morpho release at the Museum of Life and Science Destination: 1,000 blue butterflies at the Museum of Life and Science

The butterfly's underside is a light brown color with several eye spots, which provide camouflage against predators such as birds and insects. When it's flying, the bright blue, then brown flashes make it look like the butterfly is appearing and disappearing.

The museum gets shipments of about 500 butterflies a week. About 800 to 900 butterflies are flitting around the butterfly house at any given time. Usually you'll find about 50 different species, including the Blue Morpho.

But this month, the focus is more on the Blue Morpho. Daily butterfly releases, scheduled at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., weekdays and Saturday, and 3 p.m., Sundays, feature the Blue Morphos, along with other species that have emerged from their chrysalises. The releases actually happen all year, they just will be featuring the blue butterflies this month.

On Monday, during the morning release, a cluster of kids and adults stood around Hartmond as he opened up a net covered box with about a dozen butterflies. Kids, arms raised in the air, waited for him to perch a butterfly on their hands and watch it fly away. Hartmond talked about the different butterflies and answered questions. Afterwards, they scattered throughout the house, searching for the Blue Morphos and other butterflies floating around the space.

The Blue Morphos were quick, often chasing each other through the lush plants. One landed on my daughter's leg. Others could be seen on a plate of fruit, which they like to eat, along the windows and in the trees.

Because of the blue color and size, the Blue Morpho is among the largest butterflies in the world, other museums have featured the creature. Hartmond had never seen the butterfly in the wild until last year when he was visiting farms in Costa Rica where the museum gets some of its butterflies.

He was on a kayak trip down a river when, popping out of the dark green forest, was a blue butterfly.

"It was just amazing and magical," he tells me. "I wanted to have that here and have it for our guests as well." 

The daily butterfly releases are free with admission, which is $14  and $10 for kids ages 3 to 12. For more information, watch my video interview with Hartmond.

Go Ask Mom features places to take kids every Friday. For more ideas, check our park and playground reviews and posts on Triangle family destinations.

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