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Practice With Butterfly Identification
Look, Measure, Draw, Describe

Here's a fun exercise to develop observation skills. First students observe two butterfly species carefully and draw them to scale. (The
process of drawing requires careful observation and focus on details!) Next students describe the butterflies in writing and then read thorough descriptions that scientists wrote.

Danaus plexippus
Photo Jim Gilbert

Painted Lady
Vanessa cardui
Photo Peter J. Bryant >>

Carefully compare the photos of the Monarch and Painted Lady above. The characteristics you see at first glance are called "field marks." As you prepare to draw, notice the distinguishing field marks for each species.

Size is an important field mark. You can tell the size in these photos, so here are the wing span measurements for each species.

Painted Lady: 2 - 2 7/8 inches (5.1 - 7.3 cm).
Monarch: 3 3/8 - 4 7/8 inches (8.6 - 12.4 cm).

Now pull out your sketch pad and draw each butterfly. Drawing forces us to look very closely! Use this butterfly template if you need help getting started. Make your drawings to scale.

Take Note: It's the process of drawing that's important. Encourage students not to be concerned with perfection. It doesn't matter how the butterfly looks; the process of drawing requires careful observation and focus on details.

Next, write a description that compares and contrasts the two species. Include field marks that you think are most helpful.

Helpful Vocabulary

  • Upperside (of wings)
  • Underside
  • forewing
  • hindwing
  • wing margin
  • leading edge of wing
  • wing shape
  • wing pattern
  • scales (colors and patterns--spots, stripes, etc.)
  • veins (colors and patterns)
  • head
  • thorax
  • abdomen


Read Scientific Descriptions
The website Butterflies and Moths of North America is an excellent resource for butterfly information. There, you can compare your verbal description of each butterfly to the descriptions written by experts:

Now that you've sharpened your observation skills, here are other butterfly species that are sometimes confused with monarchs. Take a close look — and sketch a fewto become familiar with their similarities and differences:

For further writing practice, students can write desriptions of butterflies and then challenge classmates to match descriptions with photos.

Journaling Questions
  • In what ways do monarchs and painted ladies look alike?
  • In what ways are they different?
  • What did you notice while drawing each butterfly that you hadn't noticed before?
  • Based on your experience, describe how drawing helps you observe more closely.
  • How does specific vocabulary help with observation?
  • Is it possible for a monarch to be smaller than a painted lady? What's the closest they can be in size?

National Science Education Standards

Science as Inquiry
Scientists use different kinds of investigations depending on the questions they are trying to answer. Types of investigations include describing objects, events, and organisms. (K-4)

Different kinds of questions suggest different kinds of scientific investigations. Some involve observing and describing objects, organisms, or events.

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