There’s just a few days left to see The Butterfly Conservatory at the American Museum of Natural History—the seasonal exhibition closes May 30. While you’re visiting the exhibition, it’s easy to pick out the paper kites (Idea leuconoe) with their striking—dare we say sophisticated?—color pattern of black and white.
The species, also known as the large tree nymph and the rice paper butterfly, is a perennial at the popular live-animal exhibition, which is overseen by David Grimaldi, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology. Denizens of dense forests and coastal mangrove swamps, paper kites range from Thailand to Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Borneo.
Their large wings—spanning up to 4.5 inches—allow them to glide, even sail through their habitat. While the wings are somewhat yellowish toward the body, the highly recognizable black and white markings may serve a protective purpose: warning off predators familiar with the species’ unpleasant taste, caused by a toxin called danaidone that is passed by the male to the female during mating.
“It is very likely that they do advertise themselves,” says Dr. Grimaldi, noting, however, that more typically animals that are warningly colored (aposematic) tend to have red, yellow, and black in a banded pattern, as seen in various insects, frogs, snakes, and butterflies.