Imperiled Butterfly Conservation sounds as if it would feature white-coated scientists conducting academic experiments while hovering around outrageously expensive, high-tech equipment funded through the generosity of one very rich old lady who used to have a pet Monarch named "Spot."
But the modest three-year project was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and members say they are proud of what they've accomplished with limited resources.
"This is no-tech," explains scientist Doug Taron as he shows off his collection of butterfly pupa in chrysalis hanging upside down from scraps of window screen covering an assortment of ordinary, paper Dixie cups. "That's part of the interesting challenge of this work. If we need to do that (secure big money for fancy equipment), butterfly conservation would never get done."
This week's Imperiled Butterfly Conservation and Management conference at Chicago's Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, where Taron works alongside fellow biologist Vincent Olivares, attracts three dozen leading butterfly experts from zoos and museums across the nation. They are scheduled to make a pilgrimage Thursday afternoon to the prairie at Fermilab in Batavia to release dozens of adult Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies that were raised from eggs at the nature museum.
They tried a similar infusion of the rare butterfly in 2009 when they freed more than 100 caterpillars in the hope they'd blossom into butterflies. The following summer, they found no butterflies. Caterpillars can fall prey to birds, spiders, bacteria, disease and, Taron says, a parasite that was the inspiration for the creature in those Alien movies.
"The egg hatches and the grub eats the internal organs of the caterpillar, starting off by eating fat and the nonessential organs," Taron says.
"The caterpillar doesn't realize what is happening and it just keeps dying," Olivares says, explaining how the parasite will burst through the caterpillar's middle at some point, no doubt horrifying the rest of the now-dead caterpillar's crew.
This year's release of adult Baltimore Checkerspots, considered rare in the suburbs, is only made possible by a serendipitous mishap involving a cheap terra cotta flowerpot and a plastic drinking cup the winter before last.
"Caring for them over the winter is the hardest part to do," Taron notes. "They need to experience the short days and cold temperatures of winter."
To mimic their nesting underground, the insects were put into small plastic cups that were stuffed with wet paper towels, covered with inverted terra cotta flower pots and stored on pallets on the museum's roof.
"It's freezing cold and the middle of winter and one of the cups gets knocked out," Taron says.
When they retrieved the cups in that spring, all the butterflies were dead except for the ones in the lost cup, which had fallen between the slats and remained wet. That led Taron and Olivares to experiment with a type of plaster in the bottom of the cups to absorb water and keep the environment moist even when temperatures on the roof got to 14 degrees below zero last winter. That worked.
"We had over 75 percent survival," Taron says.
The butterflies released Thursday will get a drink of water, have a little snack and "then start doing mating dances and chasing each other around," Olivares says.
The hope is the Baltimore Checkerspots will establish themselves at Fermilab, which features the only two plants (Turtlehead and Mullein Foxglove) where the species lays its eggs. That butterfly is thriving at the Bluff Spring Fen Nature Preserve in Elgin, where Taron is a site manager. The Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in Naperville is another suburban spot where butterfly people continue to improve the environment for butterflies.
The concept of establishing a small colony that will grow and thrive in the future is one the imperiled butterfly folks know firsthand.
"That's exactly our idea," says member Jaret Daniels, assistant curator of lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) at the Florida Museum of Natural History. "While the grant is ending and this is the last workshop (for the imperiled butterfly group), we have grand visions of where we could go."
Meeting other butterfly experts and seeing their conservation efforts in person will make their group stronger.
"We're looking for other grants so we can continue the project and we're investigating other funding as well. We hope this will balloon," Daniels says. "It's getting people to share and network because that's the only way we'll achieve these larger goals."