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Learning the Language of Color

Harvard exhibit explores the role it plays in the animal kingdom

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While it may take only a flirty text message or a Facebook request for a college student to attract romantic interest, a new show on view at the Harvard Museum of Natural History reminds us that in the animal kingdom, how the game of love is played is often a question of color. Titled The Language of Color, this stunning exhibit explores the various ways that animals display color—to camouflage, intimidate, and yes, sometimes even to attract a mate.

Visitors will learn about many of the fascinating mating rituals involving color that different species engage in. A male lizard uses push-ups or head-bobs that flaunt vibrant head and neck coloration to impress a female, while a courting bird may perform a ceremonial dance that flashes its brilliant feather colors and patterns to do the same. These methods of attraction aren’t likely to be seen on BU’s campus (except, maybe, at a frat party), but they are, as this show demonstrates, essential to animal communication.

One of the highlights of the exhibit is a video presentation that explains the genetics of zebra striping. The elaborate black-and-white designs are not accidental, but take form when a certain gene is triggered during fetal development.

The gallery is filled with striking portraits of iguanas, cases filled with butterflies and beetles, even a nine-foot hide of a mountain zebra. Displays featuring real bird, mammal, reptile, fish, and mollusk specimens are found throughout the exhibit. Peer into a terrarium and try to spot the live dart frogs, which use colors to warn predators that they are a bad choice of food—poisonous, in fact.

The Language of Color is a reminder of the vital role that color and pattern play in the animal world and will leave you with a new appreciation for the intricacy and vibrancy to be found from one species to the next. If nothing else, you might gain a tip from a reptile on how to score a date.

The Language of Color is on view at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, 26 Oxford St., Cambridge, through Monday, September 30. The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 with student ID, $10 for seniors (65+), $8 for children 3–18, and free for children under 3. Hop on the #66 Bus toward Harvard Square at the intersection of Harvard Ave. and Brighton Ave., hop off at the Johnston Gate stop, and walk for about six minutes to the museum.

Watch a tour of the exhibit here.

Tom Vellner can be reached at tvellner@bu.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @tomgvellner.

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