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A Visit to New York's Butterfly Conservatory - 2002-03-25

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City is famous for its immense collection of fossilized dinosaurs and other long-dead scientific specimens. But at the Butterfly Conservatory within the museum, over 500 species of gorgeously colored living animals can be found flapping around and feeding in an idyllic tropical garden.

On these blustery, end-of-winter days in New York City, the sky is often grey and overcast, the wind may howl, and there is nary a green leaf to be seen. But in the tropical garden at the Butterfly Conservatory, it is a humid thirty-two degrees Celsius and the air is alive with the iridescent flutter of patterned wings.

Hazel Davies, the exhibition and education coordinator at the conservatory, says it is among the museum's most popular attractions in spite of the fact that butterflies are insects. "They're harmless to humans," she said, "and they just look so beautiful that people don't see them as bugs."

Ms. Davies says that butterflies are more than just pretty. They're pleasingly weird. She said, "They have taste buds in their feet for instance, which is kind of fun, and they smell with their antenna, and they drink through a tube-like proboscis. All of this makes them very interesting and fun to study."

Adam Phillips: "Why do they have taste buds in their feet? What a strange place to put them!"
Hazel Davies: "This is particularly useful for female butterflies because the female butterflies obviously lay the eggs. And they need to lay their eggs on a specific plant that the caterpillars eat. Because different species of butterflies and caterpillars eat different plants. So the female sees what she thinks is the correct plant, which is called a 'host plant,' and when she lands on it, she can taste and she can tell that it's the right plant she has landed on. Because she scratches it with her feet and tastes it."
Adam Phillips: Now, why are butterflies so various in their markings and their patterns? What's the point of different colors? Do other butterflies see them, or what?
Hazel Davies: "They do. Some of the wing patterns represent warning coloration because some butterflies are toxic… and those wings show a warning: Don't eat me! Others have a more cryptic coloration for when they are sitting on branches. The different species have evolved their own patterns and other species will recognize them. Butterflies actually see in ultraviolet light. So the pattern they see on butterfly wing is actually quite different than the one we're seeing."

Ms. Davies is fascinated by every one of the 500 plus species in her charge. Still, she has a few favorites. "I really like the 'Cherxes' butterfly that we have from Kenya here in the conservatory," she said. "They have a really quirky personality. They feed on fruit [and] they have chunky little bodies, which is slightly unusual for a butterfly. They are slightly moth-like in appearance. They're just fun. They like to come and sit on the fruit, and they fly around really fast. The 'Owl Butterfly' is very popular with the visitors. It's called the Owl Butterfly because of its camouflage. It's got two huge eyespots on its wings that are not eyes, but they look like enormous owl eyes. And they serve as protection."

Adam Phillips: Wow! Look at that one!
Hazel Davies: "This one is a 'Paper Kite' from Asia. It's called a Paper Kite because it's very flappy and kite-like as it flies. It has a beautiful white coloration on the white background, and it's quite dramatic. It stands out. People like that one."

Most of the stages of a butterfly's life cycle from egg, to caterpillar, to chrysalis to butterfly occur within this Conservatory. Migration patterns over vast distances, another common feature of the adult butterfly, of course, cannot. But Museum scientists keep close track of all world butterfly patterns.

Ms. Davies said, "Here in the Northeast, we have 'Monarchs' return here every summer that have migrated, that have been over-wintering in Mexico. They migrate up the eastern side of North America, [and] up into southern Canada. Probably this summer we won't see as many Monarchs as we normally have passing through the area because during the winter in Mexico, there was a very bad storm and a frost and quite a few of them actually died down there while they were undergoing their hibernation period over the winter."

Hazel Davies is the education coordinator at the Butterfly Conservatory at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. She adds that butterflies live in every continent in the world except Antarctica.

If you'd like to get butterflies to come to live and breed in your garden, simply plant marigold flowers, fennel, dill, parsley and other nectar- producing plants.