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Language of Color

New Exhibition Opens opens September 26, 2008, at Harvard Museum of Natural History  

Whether it’s the brilliant blue wings of a butterfly, the scarlet feathers of a tanager, or iridescent beetles that shimmer purple and green, animals display color in vastly different ways. Language of Color, a new exhibition at the Harvard Museum of Natural History will explore how animal colors are produced, the varied ways in which color is perceived, and the diverse messages that animal colors can convey.  The exhibit will open September 26, 2008 and be on display through September 6, 2009. Extended through September 2011. 

Dr. Hopi Hoekstra, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of Biology in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and the Curator of Mammals at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, will offer the Language of Color exhibition opening lecture on Thursday, September 25th at 6:00 pm. Dr. Hoekstra’s lecture, Nature's Palette: the Biological Significance of Color, will be free and open to the public.

“This exhibition combines a spectacular array of species, and reveals the truly dazzling spectrum of colors used by animals to communicate with each other,” said Elisabeth Werby, Executive Director of the Harvard Museum of Natural History. "Language of Color also showcases some of the cutting-edge evolutionary research ongoing at Harvard today.”

With dramatic displays of real animal specimens including bird, mammal, reptile, fish, mollusk, and insect specimens from Harvard’s vast collections, Language of Color will help visitors to understand the nature of color, how different animals “see” it, and how animal color and its perception have co-evolved to produce an extraordinarily complex and diverse palette of colors.

Colors can conceal, warn, intimidate, or attract; and animal colors are so diverse both because these messages vary and because the animals receiving the messages perceive colors in different ways. Through computer interactives, visitors will be given the opportunity to “see” colors through the eyes of other animals, including large parts of the color spectrum that are imperceptible to humans.   

Visitors will also have the opportunity to examine the colors in bird feathers and butterfly wings as if through an electron microscope, to explore the contrasting black and white stripes of a 9-foot-high hide of a mountain zebra, and to learn through a video presentation about how zebra stripes develop and why they have evolved. Some scientists have theorized that the variation in width of different zebras’ stripes might be explained by differences in when, in the early development of the zebra fetus, the gene for striping “turned on.” Another exhibition highlight is a stunning display of live dart frogs whose colors warn predators that they are a bad choice of food.  Another video, filmed with Woods Hole scientists, shows dramatic instantaneous color change in flounder, octopus and cuttlefish.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History is located at 26 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA, a 6 minute walk from the Harvard Square T station. The Museum is handicapped accessible. For general information, call 617/495 3045 or visit the Plan your visit page.


Harvard Museum of Natural History
With a mission to enhance public understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the human place in it, the Harvard Museum of Natural History draws on the University’s collections and research to present a historic and interdisciplinary exploration of science and nature. More than 165,000 visitors annually make it the University’s most-visited museum.

Language of Color has been organized by the Harvard Museum of Natural History.  

For images and more information, contact This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it , or call 617.496.0049 

The Language of Color press release is available for download in pdf format.