Monday, July 20, 2015

Butterfly Grossology

A frequent conversation with guests goes something like this:

Sarah: Do you like insects?

Guest: No, not really.

Sarah: Do you like butterflies?

Guest: Yes ... I know they are insects but they are so pretty.

One mission of our Tropical Butterfly House is to act as an ambassador for insect life using a beloved group of insects to encourage examination of our fears related to the Arthropods in general. So it’s great that people love our butterflies. But if you like Grossology, here are some more reasons to love them!

1. Caterpillars make a LOT of frass. Frass – add this to your vocabulary when you want to talk about poop; it is specifically the waste from insects. Entomologists looking for insects in the environment often use frass as a clue, just as trackers use the spoor of larger animals. Different types of termites, beetles, and caterpillars all have unique ways that they deposit their frass, and an expert can tell you what lives there by how it poops. Frass is one reason we do not raise our own caterpillars; raising large numbers of them is a very messy undertaking and requires an environment that can be routinely bleached and hosed down.

2. Pupae don’t poop at all. They store it. So don’t call them poopae. During the weeks that it pupates, the insect is breaking down and metabolizing its old larval body and growing an adult one. Lots of work is going on and lots of waste is being generated, but it will all stay inside the pupa’s skin until it is ready to emerge.

3. Butterflies take a great big poop as soon as they are able! Butterfly waste is called meconium, the same word as the first poop of a newborn baby. It is not made of old, digested food. Instead it is made of the metabolic waste that built up during the process of metamorphosis. Meconium can be colorful and it can stain! We wait until our butterflies have finished expelling their meconium before we let them out into the exhibit, but if you want to see it, come by and look in the emerging window before we clean it.

4. Butterflies like minerals and they are not too picky about the source. In the wild, some butterflies can gather minerals from damp sand, mammal feces, secretions and urine, blood and even roadkill. We do not make these available in the Tropical Butterfly House, so our butterflies make due with moist soil, nectar, and occasionally sweat. After drinking water with dissolved minerals, butterflies excrete the liquid through their anus, keeping the minerals they need and getting rid of ones they have in excess.

For a couple of stories on Red Rain (possibly butterfly meconium) and other fun stuff:

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