Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Butterflies Under Glass

The main reason that I was hired to be curator at my museum was to run a display of living butterflies. The main reason that I accepted the job was to be able to do some of the conservation work that I have blogged about previously. But running the butterfly exhibit is something that I have genuinely enjoyed. The exhibit is a greenhouse, where we grow a variety of flowering plants that our butterflies use as nectar sources. People can walk around inside the greenhouse among the free-flying butterflies. This type of exhibit is becoming increasingly popular around the world. In the US, there are over a dozen large exhibits in a number of cities including Houston, Denver, Key West, St. Louis, and ours in Chicago. We fly our butterflies year round, and I especially enjoy going into the exhibit before we open on days that it’s snowing outside. I have the place to myself, and I enjoy the contrast of tropical plants and butterflies from around the world with the winter scene just a few feet away.

Exhibit Lab. The chrysalides are in the styrofoam box on the counter.

There are butterflies from about a dozen countries, including Costa Rica, Ecuador, Kenya, and Malaysia. We purchase all of our butterflies as chrysalides, mainly because that’s the easiest life stage to ship. The chrysalises arrive in very ordinary looking styrofoam boxes, and are unpacked in a laboratory. We hang them on foam-backed boards, and place them in a sealed case. In a few days to a few weeks, the adult butterflies emerge and are released into the exhibit.

Owl butterfly from Costa Rica feeding on fruit

The butterflies are actually raised on farms in the various countries where we purchase them. The farmers have simpler versions of our exhibit space where they allow the adult butterflies to mate and lay eggs. They put in a great deal of effort growing the kinds of plants that the caterpillars eat, and feeding and caring for the larvae. Once the caterpillars pupate, they are transported to central distribution centers, sorted and boxed, and shipped to people like me.

Butterfly eggs and chrysalides on a farm near San Jose in Costa Rica

Rearing owl butterfly caterpillars on banana leaves. Guacimo, Costa Rica.

Butterfly exhibits like ours are very popular, and likely to be a permanent feature of the zoo/aquarium/museum landscape. It’s a lot of fun working in this field right now, because the technology is still fairly new, and so we are still developing new methods to improve butterfly display. New species are being developed for exhibition every year. It’s also rewarding, because the industry provides a needed infusion of cash to countries in the developing world, and has some other environmental benefits.

Doug with butterfly farmers in Costa Rica

A couple of years ago, I took a butterfly farming seminar in Costa Rica. One family proudly showed us their agricultural fields. There were two small ones, one to grow nectar plants and one to grow host plants for the caterpillars. The largest- many hectares in size- was a block of intact rainforest that they would periodically harvest small numbers of butterflies from for breeding. It was more economically viable for them to use the land that way than to clear it for a coffee or banana plantation.

Life on the butterfly farm. Guacimo, Costa Rica

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Monday, September 25, 2006

My Favorite Ecosystems

Last Week, I posted a "top 10" list. Since then, I've been thinking about doing another one that was a bit more specific to this blog. Here is a list of my top 10 favorite ecosystems in the world. I have actually visited all of these, except one, as will become apparent.

1. Tallgrass Prairie

Bluff Spring Fen

Any list of my favorite ecosystems would have to start with this one, if only because I have now spent over half of my life studying, managing, and restoring examples of this ecosystem.

2. Sonoran Desert Scrub

Below Kitt Peak, Arizona

The first time I visited the Sonoran Desert was spring of 1988. I went for a hike in the west unit of Saguaro National Park (then still Saguaro National Monument). The spring flowers were in full bloom, but what struck me most was the larger vegetation. Saguaro cactus is really playing the role of a tree in this ecosystem. There are other trees, too- vase shaped ocotillos, gnarly desert hackberries, spiny mesquite trees, twiggy palo verdes. I began thinking of the place as the enchanted forest. It’s a desert. Yet in its own way it’s also a forest- but the trees all look somehow like they should be growing on the bottom of the ocean. It’s now nearly 20 years later, and I still feel the same sense of enchantment every time I visit.

3. Bermuda Cedar Forest

Top: Bermuda Coast Bottom: Remnant Cedar Forest

Sadly, some of my favorite ecosystems have virtually vanished from the planet. The island of Bermuda was once clothed with a dense forest dominated by Bermuda Cedar, a native palmetto, and Bermuda Olivewood. All of these trees are endemic to Bermuda, that is, they grow naturally nowhere else in the world. All three are now threatened with extinction. As with so many islands, the native ecosystem of Bermuda has been ravaged by development and the changes brought about by the introduction of non-native species to the islands. Ecologist David Wingate has done a masterful job of restoring an example of this ecosystem on Nonesuch Island, a tiny islet off shore from the main island. In addition, Wingate has been instrumental in bringing a bird called the Bermuda Petrel, or Cahow, back from the brink of extinction. Wingate estimates that for 200 years prior to recovery activities focused on the Cahow, there were never more than 15 breeding pairs alive at any time. The survival of the species along such a tenuous thread of existence is the stuff of near miracles.

4. Puna

At 15,000' below Salkantay, Peru

This is the one that you are least likely to guess where or what it is from the name of the ecosystem. Puna is a high elevation grass and scrubland found in Peru and adjoining countries. In 1989, my partner and I spent a week backpacking in the Cordillera Vilcabamba north of Cuzco. It’s always a bit disorienting for me when I do something like this, as I’m used to being familiar with a good fraction of the plant species that I’m seeing while out and about. Our travels took us past tropical mountain glaciers, over a 16,000 ft mountain pass, and through scenery as beautiful as anything I’ve ever encountered elsewhere. One valley that we descended into was home to plants that were close relatives of familiar prairie plants growing there. It felt sort of like home except that dotted among the tick trefoils and geums were beautiful yellow oncidium orchids in full bloom.

5. Fan Palm Oasis

Southwest Grove, Anza Borrego State Park

In the deserts of southern California, there are places where faulting forces groundwater up to the surface. Here the only species of palm tree native to the western United States takes hold. Its amazing to sit in the shade of the palm trees looking out at the harsh desert light outside of the oasis. The air is much cooler, there is lots of bird activity up in the palm fronds, and the entire oasis buzzes. The sound is from hundreds of bees collecting water from the damp mud at the edge of the pools that are found in many of the palm groves.

6. Windward Islands Rain Forest

Top: Dominica Bottom: Vegetation around fumerole

The windward islands form the boundary between the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. They are steep sided volcanic mountains. Dominca is the most unspoiled of the lot and covered with dense rain forest. At higher elevations there are fumeroles, hot springs, and even a boiling lake. Two rare species of endemic parrots fly in the rain forests. In one area, there is a ravine about 30 feet deep and about three feet wide. Dominica offers a glimpse of what the islands of the region looked like before Columbus.

7. Florida Pine Rocklands

Big Pine Key

The Florida rocklands are an ecosystem that I have come to know only recently. It is now confined to portions of the Everglades, and to Big and Little Pine Keys about three quarters of the way from Miami to Key West. The soil is very thin over a layer of fossilized coral reef that pokes through the soil here and there. There are sinkholes scattered about where rare ferns and orchids can sometimes be found. There is a strong Caribbean influence to the vegetation. The rocklands of the Everglades are always enjoyable to visit because we encounter coontie, a native Floridian species of cycad that is the host plant of a rare butterfly called the Atala. Cycads are a passion of my partner’s so we both enjoy finding them. Contributing to my enjoyment of this ecosystem is the fact that we usually visit on our annual vacation to the Florida Keys, where we get to spend time with some good friends. This year instead of going to the Keys we will visit Costa Rica, where we will encounter:

8. Central American Cloud Forest

Volcán Poas, Costa Rica

This is a high elevation tropical forest. It’s typical of some of the Central American volcanoes. I am most familiar with it from Poas Volcano in Costa Rica. Many people will be surprised that I have chosen a butterfly-poor habitat as one of my favorite tropical ecosystems, but it’s a beautiful one. The forest is somewhat stunted and twisted by the mountain winds. The branches of the trees are covered with a denser growth of epiphytic orchids, ferns, and bromeliads than I have seen anyplace else in the world. It’s often misty, as one is engulfed in the clouds that give this ecosystem its name, and this contributes to the relatively poor abundance of butterflies. But there are hummingbirds everywhere, and it’s a real treat to see them flitting among the bromeliads, taking nectar from the bright red flower spikes.

9. Sierra Nevada Alpine Zone

Top: The High Sierra Bottom: Behr's Sulphur

This is another sparse and austere ecosystem. The dominant feature is very white granite everywhere, but there’s lots of life, too. In the zone ranging from near to above treeline, beautiful alpine meadows grow interspersed with groves of stunted conifers. The meadows are often filled with dozens of species of colorful wildflowers, including lupines, gentians and monkey flowers. Despite the harsh climate, this is an area rich in butterflies. One of my favorites is Behr’s sulphur. It lives in the high California Sierras and nowhere else in the world. It’s a member of the large genus Colias, which includes many of the little yellow butterflies common throughout temperate regions. Behr’s sulphur is the only member of the genus that is predominantly green.

10. Hydrothermal Sea Vent

Black Smoker and Giant Tube Worms

This is the coolest ecosystem that I will never have the opportunity to visit. Vent communities are located in the perpetual darkness of the ocean floor, in geologically active regions. Underwater geysers called black (or white) smokers spew ferociously hot water filled with compounds in a reduced chemical state. Not the sort of things that we commonly consider to be nutrients, the power the bacteria that form the base of the food chain here. Unlike more familiar ecosystems, these nutrients enter the food chain from the Earth’s mantle, rather than from the sun via photosynthesis. Organisms that live here must cope with the extreme pressures of the ocean depths, total darkness, and temperatures that can range from above the boiling point of water (the pressure keeps it liquid) to icy cold. Despite these challenges, far from being species-poor, these are very rich ecosystems. Their inhabitants can include crabs, clams, mussels, giant tubeworms that can be over six feet ling and have no mouths, and even fish. Because of their great remoteness in the ocean depths, these communities remained unknown until the 1970s.


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Sunburst Diving Beetles

The aquatic beetle investigates the bottom of the aquarium, nosing into the gravel in search of prey. Needing oxygen, it pivots and, looking like a tiny submersible vessel, swims to the top of the tank for air before resuming the hunt. Off and on over the past several years we have maintained a tank of sunburst diving beetles at the Museum. Their bizarre yet cute appearance (they are just 1/2" long) and interesting behavior make them one of our more popular live animal displays.

Our sunburst diving beetles come from Arizona, and the current crop was obtained during my recent trip to the Sonoran Desert. Although we like to keep a display of them, we have done so only intermittently because they are expensive. Fortunately, it’s not at all uncommon for them to live for over 6 months in captivity. Still it had been nearly a year since we have displayed any, so the collecting trip was a welcome opportunity to turn things around.

Sunbursts, sometimes called spotted diving beetles, live in the southwestern part of the country and range south into Mexico. They seem to prefer slightly less arid mountainous habitats rather than the desert lowlands. Still they are from a hot, dry region and their scientific name, Thermonectus marmoratus, reflects this. Thermonectus means "warm swimmer." We caught several in the pools that you see in the picture here, and several more in Sycamore Canyon. We managed to return to Chicago with four of them.

In an attempt to overcome the problems we have encountered previously with irregular availability of the beetles, we did not place this group on public display. Instead, we set up a tank to try to breed them in. It’s a normal aquarium with a floating platform that has damp peat moss on it. Sunbursts crawl out of the water to lay their eggs on damp soil.

Three weeks ago our efforts were rewarded and we found hatchlings in the tank. Beetles, like butterflies, undergo complete metamorphosis; that is, they pass through egg larva and pupa stages before becoming adults. The larvae look nothing like the adults. Diving beetle larvae are called water tigers. We are feeding ours frozen bloodworms. Unfortunately, they will also eat each other given the opportunity, so we have set each water tiger up in its own cup.

Water Tiger

Eventually, the water tigers will leave the water to pupate in damp soil. We’re using peat moss, although none of the beetles has yet reached pupation stage. We have gotten several dozen larvae so far, and they seem fairly easy to raise. With luck, we will soon have a vibrant display of dozens of sunburst diving beetles.

Rearing Water Tigers

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Theater Excursion

Between the statistics course last week, all of the butterfly eggs and hatching larvae in the lab at the moment and the general level of nuttiness around here right now, I’m tired of talking butterflies. What to do when you are feeling uninspired? Taking a tip from friends who blog, I’ll do a top ten list, completely unrelated to science and nature. Here are my top ten favorite plays ever (in no particular order):

1. The Glass Menagerie

I didn’t go to the movies, I went someplace much further. Unfortunately, bad productions abound. In capable hands, Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece can still reduce me to sniffles.

2. The Fifth of July

I’d want to be friends with almost anyone in Lanford Wilson’s cast of oddball characters. Warm and moving.

3. The Tempest

Why The Tempest out of all of Shakespeare’s comedies? I’ve always suspected that my love for this play is partly at an unconscious level- appropriate for a play where Jungian archetypes are encountered around every corner. It’s also the source of the plot line for a science fiction film called Forbidden Planet with more than a passing nod to Freud (monsters of the Id). It has entered my dreams on more than one occasion.

4. Yerma

How does one even begin to discuss Lorca? My Spanish is at a level where understanding the original language is a struggle, but it’s worthwhile. This is Lorca at his most lyrical. A Spanish peasant named Yerma struggles with being barren. The language of the play could only have been written by a poet of Lorca’s caliber. Best appreciated untranslated.

5. Othello

Is jealousy the perfect subject for a tragic play? Is Iago the best villain ever? Picking a favorite from Shakespeare is nearly impossible- I’ll go with Othello because of my strong affirmation to both of these questions.

6. Huis Clos

Once upon a time, I could read No Exit in Sartre’s original French. Those days are long gone, but the play remains an amazingly crafted existentialist exercise.

7. School for Scandal

The only play on my list that I have actually performed in. Mr. Crabtree, at your service. This was during my days in the gay alliance (AKA drama club) in college. A British comedy of manners from the late 18th century, the humor still hits home.

8. The Lady’s Not for Burning

Written in the 1940s, but set in the 15th century. Is Jenette Jourdemayne, the lady of the title, a witch? Accused of turning the town drunk into a dog, she seems wearily resigned to burning, in contrast to soldier Thomas Mendip who is just weary. Mendip is attempting suicide by trying to convince the town fathers that he has committed murder. The two lovers (of course they fall for each other) encounter a misdirection of concern by the town fathers eerily reminiscent of the Rovian White House.

9. Our Town

Yes, it’s sappily, sloppily sentimental. Yes there is a danger of going into insulin shock during the performance. I guess this one’s kind of a guilty pleasure for me. I don’t care- I like it.

10. Blithe Spirit

Delightfully silly in a way that only Coward can be. I’ve never been inclined towards drag at all, but were I ever to do it, I think I’d want to channel Madame Arcati.


Friday, September 15, 2006

Karner Blues

Karner Blue (Photo by Jim Peterson)

The Karner blue butterfly has come up in conversations and email a couple of times today. I have spent most of the week at meetings concerning this butterfly, so I decided that the karmic forces of the universe must be hinting that I should post a blog entry about it. It’s a lovely, but tiny, blue butterfly with prominent orange spots on the hindwings. It measures less than an inch across, even with its wings fully opened. It generates as much interest as it does because it has been declared an endangered species at the federal level.

An aside about the term endangered species here: it has similar but distinct meanings in its everyday and its legal usage. Both meanings reflect the idea that the species is at risk of becoming extinct. In its legal sense, however, it means that the species has been formally recognized by the government as being sufficiently at risk to confer special legal status on it. In part this status protects the species against "taking" (killing or otherwise removing it from its habitat). In many cases, including the Karner, this also means very specific goals for recovery.

On Monday I attended a meeting in Lake County to discuss the possibility of returning Karner blues to Illinois. It will be a number of years before that might happen, but it’s still exciting to think that it might, and to have the opportunity to be part of the team that is making it happen.

Simulated butterfly monitoring in the rain

On Wednesday and Thursday, I was at a course at the Indiana Dunes learning a new statistical and monitoring technique called distance sampling. It was all interesting stuff and well taught. We got to do a butterfly monitoring simulation in the rain. I was calmed during the trickier mathematical sections by the wise and benevolent gaze of Glurk, who oversaw the proceedings. Statistical geeks will be interested in the instructor’s prediction of the impending demise of R^2, the correlation coefficient. I don’t think that I can deal with the loss of Pluto, Marshall Fields and R^2 all in the same month. At least we got good weather and were able to see some interesting places and creatures during the morning on Thursday.

Statistics and the legal arcana of the Endangered Species act aside, the Karner blue is a really cool butterfly. It inhabits the black oak savanna, a type of ecosystem that is itself endangered. It’s found from southern New Hampshire to Minnesota, and is now absent from a lot of its former range (which once included the island of Manhattan). It would be a tragedy to lose it forever. Fortunately, a lot of people are now working very hard to prevent this from happening.

Black oak savanna in Indiana

Locust borer beetle - one of the interesting creatures we saw in Indiana

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Media Madness

Readers in the Chicago area will be able to hear me on WBBM radio (AM 780) Saturday and Sunday Sept. 16 and 17. I will be talking about (surprise!) butterfly restoration. WBBM is an all-news station. Bits of the interview will air on the local news segment at various times.


I Am the Egg Man

Ur-Spo recently posted an entry that made a really cool reference to the Beatles’ I Am the Walrus. Since eggs have figured prominently in my life of late, I thought I’d continue the idea here. It’s been quite a week, which is why my postings have been so thin.

Commonwealth Edison Prairie

Last Thursday, a member of my staff accompanied me to Commonwealth Edison Prairie in Grundy County. Our goal was to collect silver-bordered fritillaries to use in some restoration activities. I was apprehensive because we have had difficulties with this species this year. I had been out to the site three other times and not found any. This time we found a whole bunch. Even more fortunately, we usually have to catch 20 or 30 males before we get a single female. Of the first nine butterflies that we caught, five were females. Given that we wanted five females, we were able to complete our work very quickly and head back home.

When we got back to the lab, we began setting the butterflies up in egg laying cages. To my delight, the first butterflies that we set up began laying eggs even before the last of the butterflies were in the cages. These cages are made from plastic drinking tumblers and netting. I've gotten used to going into JoAnne Fabrics and asking to be directed to the bridal section. Bridal veil fabric makes perfect netting for these cages. The female butterfly goes into the cage along with a pad soaked in some sugar water and a few sprigs of the host plant. If all goes well, the butterfly lays eggs all over the cage, mostly on the netting. As of this morning, we have about 700 silver-bordered fritillary eggs. The first of them began hatching yesterday.

Silver-bordered fritillary laying eggs. The eggs are the light objects on the netting at the top of the cage.

Last Friday, I ventured a bit further afield to a huge site near Kankakee, Illinois. Our quarry there was the elusive and beautiful regal fritillary. This butterfly has inexplicably disappeared from most of its range east of the Mississippi River since the mid 1970s. It formerly ranged all the way to the east coast and was reasonably common. We now have 5 females and about 300 eggs. This is exciting because the regal fritillary is very much a prairie butterfly here in Illinois. It’s also considered something of a poster child for invertebrate conservation in North America. We have been also been working with a close relative, the Aphrodite. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about getting Aphrodites from the Nachusa Grasslands near Dixon Illinois. We found more of them near where we found the regals, and I took another female for good measure. She turned out to be extremely fecund and produced nearly 200 eggs. Our total count off Aphrodite eggs is now about 450.

Near the Kankakee River

So what are we going to do with all of this eggy goodness? The eggs will all be hatching within the next week or two. The silver-bordered fritillaries are the most different of the bunch. They typically have 3 to 4 generations annually. The September generation is usually the biggest, but there is also fairly often a generation in October. Assuming we get pupae fairly early in October (and depending on the weather) we will be releasing silver-bordered fritillaries in McHenry County, Illinois in an attempt to start a new population there.

Eggy goodness

The regal and Aphrodite fritillaries are more closely related to each other than either is to the silver-bordered. They are both in the same genus (Speyeria). They share a curious life history. They have a single generation annually. Their eggs hatch in late September of early October. The newborn larvae eat the eggshells- then they stop eating and go directly into hibernation. They will complete their development in the spring. We have enough larvae from the Aphrodite to do some experimentation. We plan to place most of them in outdoor cold-storage cages for the winter (we’ll do the same with the Regal eggs). Come spring, we will retrieve them and continue the rearing process and release adults next June. The Aphrodites will go to a site in McHenry County. The regals will probably go to a beautiful prairie near Markham, where they used to be found. With some of the Aphrodites, we will attempt a mid-winter generation. The advantage to doing this is that it may be possible to use such an approach to augment the number of individuals that one can place out into the field.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Migration Time

The leading edge of the 2006 monarch migration has begun passing through Chicago. It's been a good summer for monarchs so far here in the Chicago area, so I'm hoping for a strong migration this year. There have been three distinct local generations of monarchs this year: one in late June, one in early August, and one that is just now emerging from the chrysalises. Typically, there are small numbers in the earliest generation, with more abundant second and third generations. This year, the number of first generation monarchs was typical of what one would see later in the summer. The second generation was as abundant as we typically see during the migration. It’s too early to tell what will be seen with the current generation, though if the pattern holds, it could be very large.

Adults from generations I and II live for about two weeks, which is typical of adult butterflies in this part of the country. The current generation is very different from the previous two, however. The shorter day length at this time of the year stimulates the butterflies to produce a substance called juvenile hormone. This compound sends the butterflies into reproductive diapause. In other words, they stop breeding. It also increases their lifespans, and they will live eight to nine months. Their circadian clocks stimulate the onset of migratory behavior.

By the middle of next week, the peak of the migration should be passing through Chicago. The butterflies will continue to fly southward, stopping along the way to take nectar from flowers and to roost for the night. By early November, they will be near Morelia, about 100 miles WNW of Mexico City, where they will spend the entire winter. The most remarkable part of the journey is that the butterflies find the same tiny refuges year after year, yet they are at least four generations removed from the last butterflies to make the trip. We are learning more and more about how the butterflies navigate. Still, our level of understanding is analogous to knowing how a compass works, when the question at hand is how a pilot navigates to a distant airport.

These monarchs were photographed in Lincoln Park in Chicago. They are on late boneset, a plant that is used heavily by migrating monarchs in northern Illinois.

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Friday, September 01, 2006

Words from the Master

One of the difficulties about trying to write about butterflies is that one of the 20th century's literary stars was also a lepidopterist. In addition to writing such works as Lolita and Pale Fire, Vladmir Nabokov was a highly respected entomologist who has named several species of butterflies and, in turn, has had species named after him. An entire chapter of his autobiography is devoted to butterflies and collecting. The chapter ends with one of my favorite passages. It describes very closely the sensations that I was experiencing in the field yesterday, but with a clarity of prose that I can't even approach.

[T]he highest enjoyment of timelessness- in a landscape selected at random- is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstacy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern- to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.

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Mighty Aphrodite

(With apologies to Woody Allen)

Every so often, a day happens that makes it feel as though I am exactly in the right place and time. Yesterday was one of those days. I am doing conservation work with a species of butterfly called the Aphrodite. It’s a beautiful tawny orange butterfly on the top side of its wings. Underneath, the wings are chocolate brown with metallic silver spotting. It’s a large butterfly, about the size of a monarch.

Aphrodites are common in parts of their range, but in Illinois, they are restricted to large upland prairies. The larvae feed on arrow leaved violet, which grows in sandy soil. There are few such places remaining in Illinois today. Yesterday, I was out collecting female Aphrodites at a place about 100 miles west of Chicago called the Nachusa Grasslands.

Nachusa Grasslands

After a week of cool rain and drizzle, yesterday’s bright sunshine and temperatures in the upper seventies made for a great day to be out on the open road. I ventured far enough west of the city that I was able to pull in my choice of two country and western radio stations (country radio in Chicago itself pretty much sucks). Arriving at Nachusa, I found the prairie spread out before me dappled in sun and shadow, and blooming with goldenrod, Joe Pye weeds, and blazing stars. My fate would be to spend the afternoon walking about in the splendor of this location, attempting to catch female Aphrodites. It was one of those times that I marvel that I actually get paid to do this stuff.

More Nachusa

Aphrodites are in the genus Speyeria, a group of butterflies that is difficult to work with. Several species are endangered. I hope to begin working with regal fritillaries in the next couple of weeks. My friends Erin at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle and Mary Jo at the Portland Zoo are working with the Oregon silverspot, an endangered Speyeria from the Pacific Northwest. Many of the Speyeria emerge in early summer and begin feeding and mating. After a few weeks, many of these species then go into a period of summer dormancy called aestivation. It isn’t until late in the summer that they begin laying eggs. By then most of the males have died. The eggs hatch and, after eating the eggshell, the baby caterpillars hibernate over the winter. I have tried releasing newly hatched caterpillars into the field, without much success. So this year I am going to try to keep them over the winter in the lab.

Throughout the afternoon, I was treated to beautiful displays of rough blazing stars in full bloom. If you look carefully in the background of the picture you can see one flowering spike that is pure white. I have probably spent too much time looking on the blazing stars for Aphrodites. The ones that I found were all patrolling very low through the grass, looking for places to lay eggs. The blazing stars were covered with monarchs, just beginning to mass here for their migration south to Mexico. The monarchs make it a bit harder to find the Aphrodites, because they are about the same size and are similarly colored. But there are a lot more of them, so the Aphrodites kind of get lost in the crowd.

Rough Blazing Star

There were monarchs all over this hillside

One of the frustrating things about working with Aphrodites is that by August and September, the time when they are ready to lay eggs, they are really hard to find in the field. I have had poor success in obtaining them for both of the last two years. This year would prove to be far luckier. I got my first one, a female no less, only 20 minutes after parking my car. The butterflies that I collected are currently in egg laying cages. I hope they begin producing soon, and will post about the outcome.

Egg Laying Cages

In unrelated news, the swamp metalmark caterpillars are eating and growing like crazy.

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