Pictures and Thoughts about
Camouflage in the Overwintering Colonies

By Elizabeth Howard

When visiting the monarch colonies I was struck by the camouflage apparent in the photos below. I was expecting to see bright orange butterflies! But on a cool day, the resting butterflies looked almost grey. The colors and patterns of their closed wings matched the oyamel forest so well that they become almost invisible.

What colors do you see?

1) Monarchs and lichens on oyamel fir trunk

2) Close-up of bark and lichens

3) Monarch clusters from the distance

Picture 1: Look at the tree trunk covered with monarchs. Notice the single butterfly with open wings at the base of the truck. (Click on images to enlarge.) Its vivid orange wings make all of the others, with closed wings, seem ghostlike in comparison.

Picture 2: Next, look closely at the butterflies against the oyamel bark. Notice here how closely the colors and patterns of the veined wings match the colors and patterns of the bark. Also, light seems to hit the tips of the raised lichens, so that the white spots on the margins of the monarch wings also help to conceal the butterflies.

Picture 3: From the distance, look how well the monarchs match the overall grey appearance of the oyamel trunks. Their bodies also blend in against the rough texture the lichens create on the bark. This photo shows why it's easy to walk right past the colonies, they're so well concealed.

Maybe the patterns of the underwings conceal monarchs equally during all seasons, but I did enjoy noting how elegantly they matched the oyamel forest. It made me wonder if it's natural selection during the wintering season that has produced these colors and patterns.

A Careful Look at Monarch Wings

The undersides of Monarch wings.

As you know, monarchs have four wings: two forewings and two hindwings. Each wing, of course, has a topside and an underside. That makes 8 surfaces!

If you have a real monarch, dead or alive, take a close at it look now. Look closely at the undersides of the two hindwings. Also pay careful attention to the tips of the undersides of the forewings. Describe what you see.

Now go back and look at the way the monarchs fold their wings when resting at the overwintering sites, in the pictures above. Then think about the journaling question below.

Journaling Question
  • How does the resting position of a monarch help to camouflage the butterfly in the oyamel forest? In your answer, include the names of the wing surfaces that are important for camouflage.

(Record your observations in your Science Journal, then read our thoughts.)

Try This!

Classroom Camouflage Safari
Students create camouflaged butterflies that blend in with the classroom habitat. Next, butterfly predators test their skill at finding the concealed butterflies.

National Science Education Standards

Science as Inquiry

  • Ask a question about objects, organisms, events.
  • Scientists use different kinds of investigations depending on the questions they are trying to answer.
  • Different kinds of questions suggest different kinds of scientific investigations.

Life Science

  • Each plant or animal has different structures that serve different functions in growth, survival, reproduction.
  • Species acquire many of their unique characteristics through biological adaptation. These include changes in structures, behaviors, or physiology that enhance survival and reproductive success in a particular environment.