Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Butterfly Longevity Study

One of the most frequently asked questions we get about butterflies is: How long do they live? We usually generalize and reply that the average butterfly lives about two to three weeks. But sometimes, Animal Caretakers will note a butterfly with unique wing markings, or a butterfly of a species that hasn’t been released in over a month. Then we realize that this individual has far outlived that supposed range. What’s the real answer?

Over the coming months Life Sciences will be doing longevity studies with a few butterfly species in our exhibit. We will begin with Idea leuconoe, the Paper Kite. This butterfly is native to Southeast Asia, and is in the same family as the Monarch butterfly. We chose it because its markings are distinctive and because we have some evidence that it is an unusually long-lived butterfly. If our study works well, we will expand it to include other species later.

To study how long butterflies live, we need some way to recognize individual butterflies. We considered the tagging method used in Monarch migration studies but decided to go with a less invasive procedure. We tested paint markers that are easy to see, easy to apply, and won’t harm any of the butterflies’ wing parts. These photos show how minimally invasive the process is. Marking only adds three or four seconds to the normal release procedure of restraining the butterfly and best of all, does not appear to add any stress to the subject.
Each day we will mark all the butterflies of our chosen species with the same marking. Later, we will be able to compare the date they were released into the exhibit with the date they died and calculate their age. This information could lead to other questions about their care and longevity.

Drop by our Tropical Butterfly House and observe the newly marked test subjects and then stay tuned for the results from our study. It should be interesting.

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