Color Dazzles in Animal Kingdom

"The Language of Color" brightens museum of natural history

“The Language of Color” is the comprehensive epitome of the maxim “show, don’t tell,” with its digital media, still-life photos, and taxidermy specimens. The exhibit, which is on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History through Sept. 6, 2009, is an engaging, in-depth examination of color in the animal world that looks at both its purpose and uses.

Upon entering the exhibit, the first thing to catch the eye is a display box containing stuffed birds, where the electric, turquoise-shaded feathers of the Spangled Cotinga bird contrast with the Brazilian Tanager’s deep red feathers. To the right of these spectacular birds, mounted on the wall in a somewhat less flashy display box, are dozens of shells of Cuban land snails. The perfectly spaced rows and columns draw attention to the mesmerizing symmetry and subtle differences in shading among the shells.

Each turn in the gallery provides something more brilliant, exotic, and impressive than what lay behind, from the graceful sweeping plumage of the Resplendent Quetzal to the full zebra pelt mounted on the wall. The ostentatious collection of blue butterflies provides examples of a hue more brilliant than even a Mark Rothko painting; the display of iridescent beetles looks like a showcase for some Egyptian-revival scarab jewels; and the images of the flaps of skin on lizards beneath the chins of males (known as dewlaps) contain rich colors and bumpy textures more complete and expressive than a painting by Roy Lichtenstein.

Some of the most fun elements are in the various media boxes spread throughout the exhibit. One for the zebra explores how the types of stripes vary between the three species. It explains the purpose of the variations, such as the stripes’ ability to break up the outline of any one individual to confuse predators.

The “Showing Your Color” box shows footage à la National Geographic (emphasis on the graphic) of various animal mating rituals. This is by far some of the most entertaining material in the entire show—who could resist watching lizards do push ups? We all know that humans like to show off to get a little attention every once in a while, but I never knew that doing push-ups to impress the ladies isn’t an exclusively Homo sapien mating tactic.

As it turns out, color plays a big role in interactions between the sexes. Males typically are more colorful in order to attract females, though in the case of the Red-necked Phalarope, an arctic shore bird, the color and gender roles are reversed. It’s the females who attract the males with their brilliant colors and leave after the arrival of their young—the males care for the offspring. For the wrasse fish, color is closely linked to gender, so much so that they change color throughout their lifetimes with their various life stages—and also when they actually change gender.

Even for someone who doesn’t care to learn about the uses of color in nature, the show’s examples of fantastical animals and insects (which are rarely spotted outside of a museum), make it well worth the trip up Oxford Street, if only for the opportunity to revisit childhood fantasies of living out “The Jungle Book” or “The Lion King.”