Monday, October 26, 2009
By Jamie Klein
Before my butterfly release training I had no idea why butterflies needed to be released or how it is done, but after a morning with Lead Animal Caretaker Brianna Todd and a few butterflies I can tell you all about it. At Pacific Science Center’s Tropical Butterfly House, butterfly releases are part of the daily routine that keeps the butterfly population thriving. The pupae are pinned to foam boards in what amounts to a white, padded window box displayed inside the butterfly house –the emerging window.
The first step was looking in the window to check for any parasitoids that may have emerged from an unsuspecting chrysalis. As I learned this morning, caterpillars are sometimes attacked by these tiny parasitic wasps before they pupate. It is difficult to identify a chrysalis that has been parasitized. That is, until the parasitoids suddenly emerge from the chrysalis and fly around the window. On this particular morning the window was free of parasitoids, so Brianna and I proceeded into the small room that accesses the back side of the emerging window.
I opened only one side of the double-doors containing the pinned pupae to avoid a butterfly free-for-all in the release room. I got my first close up look at the incredible variety of chrysalides. To me, some of the chrysalides looked like small brightly colored seashells, while others resembled curled up leaves. After a butterfly (or moth) has emerged from its chrysalis, it literally “hangs out” on the empty shell so its damp wings have time to dry. When their wings have dried and firmed up properly, they are ready to be caught for release.
Catching butterflies is tricky business! It is a Zen art that requires flat tipped forceps and a quick, yet steady approach. I was instructed to grasp the butterfly while its wings were closed, close to its body at the overlap of its hind and fore wings so it could not thrash and damage its delicate wings. Going for the butterflies with closed wings first, I quickly learned that each species reacted differently. Some species were easy targets. Others, like the Clipper (Parthenos sylvia), make it difficult because they do not land with their wings closed. I also found as a general rule, the smaller the wings, the feistier the butterfly!
Possibly even more difficult than catching butterflies with forceps is catching them with a net. A few renegade butterflies escaped the emerging window into the release room and made a fool out of me for a good 15 minutes while I tried unsuccessfully to net them all. Thank goodness for Brianna’s practiced netting skills, she was able to make quick work of them. Once caught, we placed the butterflies into lidded bins to be transported into the main butterfly house. Finally time for the actual release, we opened the bins and one by one picked up the butterflies and set them free.
Jamie Klein is Pacific Science Center’s new Exhibit Operations Coordinator. Recently, Jamie was trained to safely and carefully release butterflies from the emerging window. We thank her for sharing this experience with us!