Symmetry in Nature

posted by Lindsay Maldonado

Despite being an urban metropolis, Chicago is surprisingly a great city for nature lovers. We are lucky enough to have access to some incredible natural spaces, both inside and outdoors. Two of my go-to nature spots in the winter are the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and the Garfield Park Conservatory. It’s been a mild winter, but when the temperatures start to dip, we all seek the refuge of somewhere warm and humid – and, these two ‘museums’ are the place to go for nature. And, nature just happens to be full of opportunities to talk about math!

One of the smaller museums in Chicago, the Nature Museum brings together a living collection of animals with a collection of animals that were once alive. Its most notable exhibit, the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven, immerses you in a tropical paradise surrounded by nearly 1,000 butterflies (and some moths too). A true haven for Chicagoans in the winter, this exhibit offers the perfect opportunity to observe math in nature. Specifically, butterflies give us the chance to explore symmetry. Exploring symmetry helps young children recognize patterns and hone their observation skills. There are many ways an object can be symmetrical. The simplest form of symmetry is bilateral or mirror symmetry – and, butterflies are a perfect example of mirror symmetry. Take a look at the butterfly pictures below. Can you see the symmetry? What makes them symmetrical?

Buckeye butterfly

longwing butterfly

atlas mothMirror symmetry is seen when one half of an object (or insect in this case) is the mirror image of the other half. If we held a mirror at the line of symmetry we would see the same image reflected on the mirror (it is not recommended to hold a mirror to a butterfly, unless of course, you have a butterfly that was once alive).

mirror symmtery

In the case of butterflies, the line of symmetry runs along the body of the butterfly. It runs directly between the butterfly’s antenna, lengthwise along its head, thorax, and abdomen (in case, you want to add some science content too).

longwing butterfly line of symmterySymmetry in nature is fairly easy to find. Leaves are another great example of mirror symmetry.

FernsThis picture of the fern room at the Garfield Park Conservatory provides unlimited opportunities to observe mirror symmetry. Let’s not forget about the other kinds of symmetry that exist though! It’s hard to pick my favorite place at the conservatory but my family really loves the desert house. And, what do you know? The desert house is a great place to explore a different kind of symmetry: radial symmetry! Objects that have radial symmetry can be equally divided like a pie. Do you see the radial symmetry in the pictures below?


succulent radial









You can continue to explore symmetry in the classroom with these activities.

Thanks for exploring museums with me this month! There are so many more museums in Chicago that we couldn’t have possibly visited them all for these posts, but with all of these museums there are even more opportunities to apply the big ideas of mathematics. With a deeper, more focused look you can find math anywhere. Next time you visit a museum, look around and ask yourself, what big ideas of mathematics can I find here? Now that you’re thinking in this way, I bet you’ll find math ideas with ease and you won’t be able to un-see them.