Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Morpho Population Crash

The life of a butterfly farmer sounds idyllic. Most people who do it are pursuing a deep interest in either the insects themselves, or in preserving their habitat. Most butterfly farmers love their work.

But in the end, butterfly farming, like all farming, is an unpredictable and risky undertaking. Many things can go wrong. However well prepared butterfly farmers may be, they can still experience devastating crop failure.

We recently heard from one of the vendors of our magnificent Blue Morpho butterflies (Morpho peliedes). This vendor had to start the year with one of the most difficult decisions of their 22 years of existence, but also one of a most necessary nature: Eliminating their entire blue morpho breeding stock, including adults, pupae, eggs and young.

Their breeding stock was showing a large group-genetic malformation. We received one shipment before the problem was identified. We saw some of the butterflies that exhibited this genetic condition - which consists of butterflies emerging with curly wings and completely unable to fly.

Although this was not the first time we’ve had a group of pupae mysteriously fail to develop, and as much as it saddened us to lose them, it is reassuring to know that there was an underlying explanation for the loss. While the problem is dealt with, we will not be getting Blue Morphos from this source – probably for the next five weeks or so.

We are reminded that the butterflies we show in our exhibit are only part of a longer and more complicated process. They are bred from butterflies in their countries of origin, often with the intention of replenishing wild populations that have been lost to habitat destruction or careless collection practices. Great care must be taken in returning species to the wild, not to introduce genetic anomalies, transmit disease, or otherwise harm any existing wild specimens.

For Pacific Science Center’s exhibit, a genetic problem causes a temporary loss of a species. It is an inconvenience. For a wild population, it could cause a crash, and be a real disaster. Fortunately, our butterfly breeders prioritize the needs of butterflies in the wild above the benefits of being able to sell more butterflies. Sacrifices in the short term means only good things for our butterfly populations in the long term. Which is fine. But this means we will see fewer Morphos for a few weeks.

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