Exotic Butterflies

By Lorrie Loewen

A White Tree Nymph (Southern India) and Scarlet Swallowtail (Asia & South America) feed on a juicy orange.
A White Tree Nymph (Southern India) and Scarlet Swallowtail (Asia & South America) feed on a juicy orange.

Adventure travel to far flung locales has its rewards. Surrounded by pristine tropical rainforest on one side and gurgling azure waters cascading over smooth wet stones on the other, we were hiking up Blue Creek to the Hokeba Ha Cave near Punta Gorda in the Toledo District of Belize, Central America. Somewhere, a butterfly flapped its wings and stopped us in our tracks. Entranced, we watched as one pair after another of brownish wings opened and a storm of butterflies took flight from their resting place on a verdant tropical plant. Suddenly the sky above us was filled with the impressive sight of the neon flash of hundreds of exotic blue morphos.

From October 5 to 14, 2013 inclusive, you won’t have to travel any further than the Carleton University Nesbitt Biology Building to be rewarded with such an impressive site. Two greenhouses are once again being transformed into a tropical botanical paradise for Carleton’s 14th annual live, tropical Butterfly Exhibit. Venture there and you will have a chance to observe over 1,300 tropical butterflies and moths representing 41 species worldwide.

The exhibit is the result of a collaborative effort by the Carleton Biology Department using the expertise of Carleton scientists and the support of students hosting school tours through the national outreach organization called “Lets Talk Science.” These university-student volunteers are positive role models to youth and deliver hands-on activities to engage them into science and bring science to life. “The exhibit is a free, educational and fun family event,” says Ed Bruggink, greenhouse manager and organizer of the exhibit since its inception in 1999.

Bruggink and his dedicated team of volunteers include his wife, Joanna, who is a teacher, as well as their three children. Local moth expert and Carleton alumni, Jim des Rivières (moths.ca), and his wife, Kathryn Finter, in addition to local butterfly expert, Rick Cavasin, volunteer their time, expertise and images each year for the exhibit. Their contributions ensure that the exhibit is a wonderful opportunity to observe and identify the butterflies in a safe and natural environment, and also an incredible learning opportunity and educational component. Be sure to visit the displays in the lobby where you can learn about local butterflies through facts, video, posters and beautiful photos.

The Blue Morpho (Central America) lands on an orange slice
The Blue Morpho (Central America) lands on an orange slice. Brown ocelli (“eyes’) of the Blue Morpho’s camouflage the iridescent blue.
Gaining in popularity every year, last season the show attracted over 10,000 local visitors and tourists from around the world and 1,000 students. Despite production costs of $5,000 to $6,000, the show breaks even each year thanks to the efforts of Bruggink and the teamwork of volunteers and students, not to mention donations from contributors and the public. Students from the University of Ottawa join those at Carleton in hosting school tours through Lets Talk Science. For more information on school tours please contact the Carleton University Biology Department at 613-520-2478.

The butterflies that you will see in this exhibit originate in butterfly farms in Asia, Africa and neo-tropical regions such as Mexico, Central America and Amazonia. These farms contribute economic and environmental benefits and attract sustainable tourism to their local communities. The butterfly farmers study the behaviour and communication capacities of the butterflies and eagerly share their knowledge and passion for butterflies with tourists through guided tours. Besides attracting tourists from across the globe, the butterfly farmers raise and ship pupae to Europe, the U.S. and Canada. These pupae are transported in special crates wrapped carefully in cotton layers. Tropical butterfly exhibits such as the one at Carleton University actually help these countries protect the rainforests from deforestation.

A Red Postman, a neotropical butterfly, sips nectar from tropical flowers.
A Red Postman, a neotropical butterfly (South America) sips nectar from tropical flowers.
As you may know, butterflies and moths together form a group known as the “Lepidoptera.” The tropical butterflies and moths that emerge in the exhibit at Carleton live out their entire life cycle in the greenhouses and are enjoyed during the exhibit by the students, biologists and the lepidopterists who study them. No live butterflies are kept at Carleton University’s Nesbitt Biology Building after the exhibit. However, the building is a working research lab where cutting edge research is conducted by biologists in various fields of specialization including insect biology.

Ed Bruggink notes, “The butterflies’ behaviour in the greenhouses is similar to in their natural habit … establishing territories and defending them, performing mating dances. Their adult lifespans are only two to three weeks.” He further observes, “Colour patterns of various species do not change in the greenhouse. They remain true to the species as in their normal geographic range. There is an easy transition to their new environment since they are exhibited in a warm, humid environment full of tropical plants and flowers full of nourishing nectar. Free of predators, the butterflies are having a great time sipping nectar, courting, mating and living their entire short and sweet life cycle in conditions butterflies love best.”

This is precisely the kind of environment into which you, the visitor, will step during your greenhouse adventure. Be prepared for immersion in a tropical climate; in the greenhouse, the plants flourish and the humidity and blossoms entice the exotic insects to emerge from their chrysalis state. Bruggink advises, “The best time to see a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis is in the morning.” He adds, “The crowd favourites are still the big blue morpho and the Atlas moth.”

Photo of an Owl Butterfly resting on an orange half
The Owl Butterfly’s (Central & South America) defensive mimicry takes the form of two giant eyes resembling the eyes of predators that hunt by sight.

Handy spotting guides provided in the greenhouses will help you identify the various species such as the emerald swallowtail, scarlet swallowtail, blue morpho and the Atlas moth. Look carefully among the flowers. That flash of satiny red and black may well be the scarlet swallowtail. As well as butterflies and moths, you may spot citrus trees, hibiscus, bougainvillea, jasmine, bird of paradise and many other varieties of tropical plants and flowers.

Go early. Have your camera ready. Wear light, comfortable layers of brightly coloured clothing, and leave your heavy backpacks at home. Take along water to keep hydrated and a covered container of orange or pineapple slices as a treat to attract the butterflies. Never touch the butterflies; should one land on you, just blow on its wings gently, and it will fly off.

Be prepared as well for lineups. Respect the queue! Both the exhibit and the tropical atmosphere are well worth the wait. The volunteers will be happy to answer your questions about moths and butterflies while you queue up. Why not make a family adventure day of it and stroll or cycle from the canal or Dow’s Lake? You can enjoy a picnic in the Arboretum with its showy fall colours. Invigorated by the crisp air, you can cross the canal to the Carleton University campus at the Hartwell Locks. Or you can take a short bus trip on OC Transpo and picnic or grab a snack on site at Carleton. Visitor parking is also available on site.

For more information, including maps, visitor parking rates, accessibility, OC Transpo routes and facilities, visit the Carleton University biology website at www1.carleton.ca/biology.

The tropical butterfly exhibit is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, from Saturday, October 5 to Monday, October 14, 2013 inclusive.

Want to learn more about Ottawa-area butterflies? Local expert Rick Cavasin (“the butterfly guy”) has a great website on local species of butterflies: ottawa.ontariobutterflies.ca or contact him at btrflyphoto-guy@yahoo.ca.

Expert source: Thanks to Ed Bruggink, Greenhouse Manager, Carleton University.

Local Glebe resident Lorrie Loewen enjoys contributing articles and photographs on subjects related to the arts and sciences. She can be contacted at 613-237-0247.

A white Tree Nymph rests on a tropical Bouganvillea plant.
A white Tree Nymph rests on a tropical Bouganvillea plant.

How much do you know about butterflies?

Lepidoptera is the name of the insect order that includes butterflies and moths.

A mud puddle club is a group of butterflies that congregate to sip from mud!

Metamorphosis refers to the changes a butterfly goes through as it transforms from egg to caterpillar to adult.

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