Spend summer learning about moths, butterflies

Butterflies are not just beautiful, they teach scientists about the world

Updated 7/20/2016 3:45 PM

A rush of questions about butterflies came from a group of young patrons from the Vernon Area Public Library District who attended the "Butterflies in the Garden" program at the Lincolnshire library.

Butterflies and moths together make up a huge portion of known animal species.

Scientists call them Lepidoptera -- scaled wings -- and believe there are as many as 21,000 butterfly species. These fluttering insects pollinate flowers, are food for bats, birds, lizards, dragonflies, spiders and other creatures, and brighten fields and skies with their dazzling coloration and flight patterns.

The simple fact they exist teaches scientists quite a lot about ecosystems -- balance, temperature and the presence of other animals that share butterfly and moth habitats.

In the field and on the hunt for the Baltimore checkerspot, Chief Curator Doug Taron from the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and Chicago Academy of Sciences, described his work with an extensive collaborative project led by Chicago Wilderness that is targeting 12 animal species to be restored to the Midwest prairies, forests and rivers. A butterfly, the Regal fritillary, is among those targeted.

"A small number of female butterflies lay eggs in the lab. Caterpillars will grow and hibernate. The entire lifecycle will take one year in the lab at the museum," Taron said of the museum's role in the project. "Hopefully, a year from now, we'll release the butterflies in the habitats."

Butterflies are the insect's adult stage. They begin as eggs, grow into caterpillars, and then attach to a leaf and produce a covering called a chrysalis. Inside this tiny case, the caterpillar matures through metamorphosis into an adult butterfly.

Depending on the species, this entire process can take a few weeks to a few months or a year, Taron explained. The most colorful of these adult insects can be found in jungle settings. Taron's ventures to Mexico have put him face-to-face with the luminous white morphos, which carries a seven-inch wingspan.

"It's sort of like going to a coral reef. Some butterflies are flying. Others are perched, and some are sitting on the pathways," he said.

Questions about the largest and smallest, how they smell and lay eggs, are answered in a snap by Taron, whose decades-long work with the delicate fliers at the nature museum and as director of the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network fuel his encyclopedic knowledge of these amazing insects.

"Largest locally is the giant swallowtail with a wingspan of six inches. Biggest in the world is Queen Alexandra's birdwing in Indonesia, which is the size of a dinner plate."

Afghanistan is home to the smallest, the lycaenid micropsyche Ariana, with an eight-millimeter wingspan.

Without a nose, how can butterflies sniff out the plants and flowers that feed and house them? Taron's response: "Antennae contribute to smell. Certain luna moths' antennae look like they have feathers. The larger surface area means they can pick up chemicals the females emit from a few miles away. They have chemical receptors similar to our sense of taste, but they're in their feet. Females want to lay eggs on plants that caterpillars eat, so their feet, or sense of taste, will tell them if they are on the right plant."

Butterfly and moth feet play an important role in the response to a final question about how they lay eggs.

"A female who is about to lay eggs will drum a leaf with her feet, which means she's tasting it. She'll determine if it's healthy. She'll curve the tip of her abdomen and deposit eggs along with a sticky substance that glues them, often to the underside of a leaf. Some butterflies will lay over 1,000 eggs -- some in a cluster. Others will deposit one or two eggs on multiple leaves or plants," Taron said.

Consider being a citizen scientist. Join the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network, www.blfy.org, and learn how to gather and report data about butterflies in your area. Contributions from IBMN citizen scientists have mapped trends in our region. Data raises questions about the demise of the Monarch butterfly while it ventures across Illinois on its annual, exhilarating migration from the north all the way to Mexico.

"We've published a number of papers on the Monarch in peer-reviewed literature. One is somewhat controversial. We have not seen in Illinois the significant Monarch decline that is seen in Mexico, which has raised a few big questions," Taron said. "Analyses say our data is sound, but if this is real, what's causing a decline in Mexico?"

Other programs call citizens to contribute observational skills to better understand changes and trends. See the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum website for more information, www.naturemuseum.org.

Summer is the best time to observe butterflies. Take a walk anywhere and enjoy the many species native to Illinois, like the Painted Lady and Viceroy. Year-round, immerse yourself in a world with a thousand butterflies at the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and take part in the daily butterfly release.

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