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  • The Brenton Blue

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    Tags: butterfly conservation, south africa, butterfly, benton blue, ecosystem, carpenter ants

    Created: 12/16/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    The Brenton Blue, or How I Unexpectedly Encountered Butterfly Conservation Halfway Around the World

    I'm just back from a vacation in South Africa.  It's a lovely, amazing country that I am completely smitten with. And while I was hoping to see and photograph some of the country's gorgeous butterflies, my expectation was that I would encounter mostly very common species.

    One of the places where I stayed was at an eco-lodge just outside of the beautiful seaside town of Knysna, on the Indian Ocean. While perusing a binder of information about the region's ecology, I happened upon a photo of a blue butterfly. The Brenton Blue is a critically endangered species that clings to existence on a tiny 6-acre parcel of land about a half hour away from the lodge. I asked the lodge's owner if she knew anything about the butterfly. She said, "let me make a quick phone call," then returned to tell me that the biologist who looks after the site said that the butterfly was flying and that he would be at the site working in about an hour. Would I like to meet him?

    An hour later, I arrived at the Brenton Blue Butterfly Reserve, where I had the opportunity to meet Dr. David Edge, one of South Africa's premiere conservation biologists working with butterflies. We spent about an hour together discussing our conservation work, and I was delighted to make contact with a colleague in a distant part of the world. He has done some amazing work elucidating the complex life cycle and conservation needs of this remarkable species.

    Dr. David Edge (l) and Dr. Doug Taron (r)
    Dr. David Edge (l) and Dr. Doug Taron (r)

    The Brenton Blue is a small butterfly that lives exclusively in Knysna coastal fynbos- a very rare type of shrub-land ecosystem. The females lay eggs on a type of a legume that grows in this community. Only the youngest larvae feed on the legume's leaves. As they grow, they are found by members of one species of carpenter ant and spirited off to their nests. At this point their diet changes and they feed on the developing ant brood. The ants don't get much in return- the caterpillars exude drops of sugary honeydew liquid, which the ants consume. One of the reasons that the species is so rare is that it needs such a precise combination of disparate ingredients to maintain a population: the plant community, the host plant, and the carpenter ants.

    Brenton Blue larvae host plant: Indigofera erecta
    Brenton Blue larvae host plant: Indigofera erecta

    Unfortunately I was only able to take one very poor photograph of the butterfly, however I hope to return some day to see how the population is faring.

    Brenton Blue
    Brenton Blue, Photo copyright D. Britton,
    via http://www.brentonblue.org.za/

    Doug Taron, Curator of Biology

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  • Nature's Theatre

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    Tags: steppenwolf, the wheel, butterfly, butterflies, education, inspiration

    Created: 9/30/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Throughout the ages, butterflies have been symbolically important to many cultures, representing everything from the souls of the dead, to resurrection, to steadfast love. Their true stories of survival in the natural world are no less meaningful, but often go largely unnoticed. So I was grateful and excited when the cast of Steppenwolf Theater’s current production of “The Wheel” wanted to ask about the real butterflies behind the imagery and references in this play. 

    Here is a sampling of questions I was more than happy to answer:

    What is the source of butterflies’ color?

     - Mostly light refracting off the scales of their wings.

    How long does the entire life cycle take to complete?

     - Frequently as long as a year, though some adult stages may only last for two weeks.    

    How do butterflies make it through the winter in Illinois?

     - Depending on the species, they may overwinter as adults, larvae, eggs, or chrysalises.  A well-known exception is the Monarch, which flies away to warmer climates.  

    Do butterfly species have “personalities”?

     - They have field behaviors that are unique and help with their identification, such as flight patterns (flap, flap, glide for the monarch), or territorial dog fighting amongst male skippers.

    We observed a sample of the stunning tropical species on display in our Haven (such as the Swallowtail Ulysses butterfly or Blue Mountain Butterfly, Papilio ulysses from Australia, one of my favorites) and talked about some of the unique plant/habitat/insect interactions that occur around the world. What became clear as we discussed the physical progression from egg, to caterpillar, to chrysalis, to adult is just how perilous a journey it is – not unlike the journey that occurs in the play itself. Much of the cast was unaware of just how much trouble certain butterfly species are in around the country.

    Blue Emperor Swallowtail butterfly specimen

    Blue Emperor Swallowtail

    We discussed the tiny but elegant Swamp Metalmark Calephelis muticum that used to fly (and as of this summer’s work, may again establish) in Illinois. It is startling in its small size– a stark size contrast to the giant Ulysses but still an incredible beauty. The story of its loss is one of human imposed challenges.

    Swamp metalmark butterfly next to a penny for scale

    Swamp Metalmark

    Butterflies have endured the ever-revolving cycles of life and abundance for thousands of years, but are now facing new, manmade challenges. How butterflies and other species might respond to these changes was a topic of discussion and inspiration for the cast members.  

    It was a great afternoon, and I was left feeling grateful that although we have come far in our understanding of the processes behind it all, our love of the magic of nature still inspires artists and scientists alike. Watching the drama of nature play out is never boring, with plot twists and surprises to keep you at the edge of your seat. And the best thing is, we all have a role to play.

    Karen Kramer Wilson, Living Invertebrate Specialist

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  • The Challenge of Swamp Metalmarks

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    Tags: conservation, butterfly, Biology

    Created: 12/27/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Of all the species that we work with in the butterfly conservation lab, by far the most challenging has been the species that is also the most seriously endangered, the Swamp Metalmark. This species has proven difficult at virtually every stage of the captive breeding process. The populations where we can obtain founder stock are small. The few females that we are able to collect don’t lay many eggs. We feel very lucky to get more than 90 or so out of a single female. Contrasts that to Regal Fritillary females that can each produce upwards of 800 eggs. Hatching, larval growth and survival to pupation are all modest at best. In northern Illinois, the species has but a single generation per year, which means that we are confronted with the challenge of successfully carrying caterpillars over the winter, a process that has proven difficult for many species. Despite these odds, we continue attempting to breed the species in the lab so that we can return the species to the fens of northeastern Illinois where it formerly flew.

    • Swamp Metalmark Chrysalis

      Swamp Metalmark Chrysalis

    • Swamp Metalmark Caterpillars

      Swamp Metalmark Caterpillars

    • Swamp Metalmark adult butterfly

      Swamp Metalmark adult butterfly

    This past August we were able to obtain 4 females from southern Indiana. True to form one of the females died after laying only a single egg. All told, we were were able to harvest about 80 metalmark eggs. Only 63 hatched. We began feeding them leaves of swamp thistle, their preferred host plant The goal is to have adult butterflies next spring that we can release onto a fen in northwest Cook County.

    Throughout September and early October we experienced the kind of gradual attrition that is typical of our experience with the species. We were faced with a dilemma: should we try moving the larvae to cages where they would spend the winter outdoors? We have never succeeded with this approach. Or should we raise them through to adulthood and try to get an additional generation with perhaps greater numbers. We have only once before succeeded in rearing the species to adulthood, but did not get any offspring. Despite the uncertainty, the latter course of action seemed less perilous, so we retained the caterpillars in the lab and continued to offer them food.

    By mid October we were down to 21 caterpillars. There the numbers stabilized as the caterpillars continued to eat and grow. With few additional losses, we obtained 19 pupae. At the time of this writing we have about 10 adults, four of which are females. We have paired them in small cages where we hope that mating will occur. After a few days we will move the females into egg laying cages and hope for the best.

    Mating Cages

    Mating Cages


    Although this species is proving difficult to work with, I believe that it is well worth the effort. Swamp metalmarks were once part of the great species diversity that was found in the fens of Illinois. It my firm hope that they will one day fly there again.

    Doug Taron, Curator of Biology

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  • Butterfly Lab on Christmas Morning

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    Tags: butterfly, volunteer

    Created: 12/24/2012      Updated: 5/28/2015

    There are a handful of reasons why I love volunteering on Christmas morning:

    • My partner and I get to spend some time together away from the usual Christmas chaos,
    • Volunteering when the museum is closed feels like a super-secret-behind-the-scenes-tour, and
    • Butterflies are awesome.

    When I was a kid I loved the excitement of sitting around the tree on Christmas morning and opening presents. As an adult it’s been hard to replicate that kind of excitement. Last year, my partner and I decided to volunteer in the Butterfly Lab on Christmas morning… and it was AMAZING.

    When we walked into the lab, there was a moment of wonder and excitement as we took a peek into the case to see who had emerged overnight. The flurry of color was just so beautiful. The butterflies looked like little presents that had been opened just for us!

    Although I enjoy volunteering in the lab throughout the year, there’s something special about doing it on Christmas morning. I love turning on some Christmas carols, rolling up my sleeves, and getting to work. It’s a great new holiday tradition, and I can't wait for my shift this year!

    Jen Walsh
    Butterfly Lab Volunteer

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