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From humble pupae, enough butterflies emerge to fill a jungle

  • SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE

    Violet Powell, 5, top, is all smiles as a Giant Owl butterfly lands on her forehead in the Butterfly Jungle exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, Calif.

Butterflies, thousands of swooping, iridescent butterflies, are set to charm visitors at Butterfly Jungle, running until April 15 at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

The butterflies have been maturing in their pupae in an incubation room at the Safari Park. When they emerge, keepers carefully transport them in wooden boxes to the specially prepared Hidden Jungle Aviary.

The pupae have been arriving at the Safari Park in recent weeks. Some come from a broker in Colorado. Many others are shipped directly from Costa Rica. Villagers there are paid to carefully collect from the approximately 30 species that will be on display in the aviary.

By establishing that the butterflies have a monetary value, the zoo helps preserve the rain forests where the butterflies grow, said Don Sterner, an animal care manager who oversees Butterfly Jungle.

“They actually propagate the butterflies, collect the pupae, and release the butterflies back into the wild,” he said. “They then ship the pupae to zoos and various botanical centers.”

“You’ll never see butterflies in such great numbers,” Sterner said. “We also have birds here as well. You’ll also have an ambiance of tropical birds with the butterflies.”

That’s the prelude to what the public will see at the exhibit.

Sterner suggests coming in the morning to beat the crowds. Sunny days are best, to view the butterflies in the most light.

And no, the birds in the aviary won’t eat the butterflies — only compatible species will remain in the aviary during Butterfly Jungle.

There’s no extra cost apart from Safari Park admission. But for those willing to pay more and willing to get up early, the Safari Park offers a behind-the-scenes tour, starting at 8:15 a.m. and lasting for two hours.

The tour begins with the butterflies, migrates to fruit bats and from there to see exotic birds and their trainers. Cost begins at $89 per person. For more information, go to sdzsafaripark.org/safari/behind-scenes-safari.

When a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter visited at the beginning of March, some butterflies had already matured and been released into the aviary.

Sterner showed the reporter around the aviary and the incubator room, kept in sauna-like conditions for the comfort of the butterflies, if not necessarily humans.

When the pupae arrive, keepers inspect them to make sure no unwanted species are included, and that there are no parasites.

Conditions also must be meticulously tailored to the developing butterflies’ biology.

On a recent visit, the incubator’s temperature was maintained at 79.3 degrees and 79 percent humidity — quite a contrast to the wintry morning temperature outside.

Once they’re judged fit, the pupae are fixed to vertical racks and placed into the incubators. Keepers can peer through glass panes to inspect the pupae without disturbing their development.

Various swallowtail and heliconid butterflies are some of roughly 30 species that will be on display. These include a perennial favorite, the blue morpho.

When resting with wings folded up, it’s a rather drab brown that easily blends in with the surroundings. With wings spread, the electric blue coloration flashes into view.

Owl butterflies, another large species, will also be displayed.

“They turn upside down and flash the underside of their wings; it looks like an owl is staring at you,” Sterner said. “It’s a startling effect.”

Butterflies are much more than a pair of pretty wings. They are excellent pollinators, which plants depend on, and ultimately humans.

But more than providing beauty, butterflies play an important ecosystem role.

In Central America, California and elsewhere, butterflies are important for the survival of plants, Sterner said.

“Butterflies are great pollinators,” he said. “We need pollinators to survive. And there’s been a decline in the amount of pollinators, bees, butterflies, a lot of insects that provide pollination.”

To help the butterflies that help us, people can grow plant species the butterflies depend on around their homes and gardens, Sterner said. Information about these plants will be available at Butterfly Jungle.


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