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Butterfly Chromatography

Butterfly Chromatography

Learn how butterflies eat their food as you make your own beautiful butterfly model.

Part of our Outdoor Science Adventures

Flappers, Flutterers and Flyers

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What I'll Learn

When drawings from water-based markers touch water, the water carries the different pigments from the marker up the paper.

What to Do

What I Need

What to Do: Step-by-Step Instructions


Gather your materials as you prepare to create a model of a butterfly. If you are using a coffee filter, you are ready to start! If you are using a paper towel, cut it in half so it forms a square-like shape; then cut off the corners to create a rough circle.

Fun Fact:

Scientists think there are about 20,000 species of butterflies, found all over the world (except Antarctica)!

Use the markers to create a simple design on the coffee filter or paper towel, such as a circle in the center. Make sure you leave the very center of the circle blank.

Fun Fact:

Did you know many butterflies have circles on their wings (called “eyespots” or “false eyes”) to scare off predators?

Fold the circle in half twice, to create a triangle.


Then place the folded tip of the triangle into the cup, so it just barely touches the top of the water. Try to keep the drawings out of the water.

Watch what happens when the water starts to climb up the paper. Once the water reaches the top of the paper, take it out of the cup, unfold it carefully, and lay onto a plate to dry.

Fun Fact:

Butterflies eat with their proboscis, a long, coiled tube under their face that absorbs nectar. This is similar to how a paper towel absorbs water or a tree brings water from its roots to its stem. This process is called capillary action, when cohesion (a liquid sticking to itself) and adhesion (a liquid sticking to other things) work together to move through a material.

Once the paper is dry, wind the pipe cleaner around the middle of the paper and twist the ends to make the antennae. You can also use a second pipe cleaner to add the coiled proboscis. Then fluff the wings. Congratulations – you have created a butterfly model using capillary action!

Fun Fact:

As water traveled up the paper, it touched the marker, pulling each pigment out to a different distance. This is called “chromatography”. Try making more butterflies using water-based black markers from different manufacturers. Are all the black colors made with the same pigments?