The Butterflies of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

Daniel Hautzinger
A butterfly emerges from its chrysalis.
(Courtesy of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum)

In advance of the broadcast by American Experience of a new documentary about the legendary environmentalist Rachel Carson on Tuesday, January 24 at 8:00 pm, read about some of the conservation efforts and opportunities to view nature in Chicago.

There’s a corner of Chicago that teems with life even in the most forbidding depths of winter. At the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven in the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, snowy gray landscapes provide not damp chills but a spare backdrop for arabesques of graceful color. Hundreds of butterflies lazily float from bloom to bloom, thriving in a warm and humid glass house even as temperatures dip below zero outside.

New adult butterflies are released at 2:00 pm every day as part of the Museum's First Flight program.New adult butterflies are released at 2:00 pm every day as part of the Museum's First Flight program. (Courtesy of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum) Such brilliant contrast between outdoors and in distinguishes winter as Doug Taron’s favorite season to be in the Haven. Taron serves as Chief Curator of the Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. (Chicago’s first natural history museum, the Academy was founded 160 years ago. The Nature Museum is its public face.) Taron is responsible for overseeing all the living things at the Museum, including research, conservation work, and the Academy’s collection of scientific and geologic specimens, fossils, films, photos, and manuscripts.

But his true passion is butterflies. Since 1997, Taron has managed the Istock Butterfly Haven, which opened in 1999 with the rest of the Notebaert campus. Before that, he worked in the biotech industry and founded the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network. Now based at the Nature Museum, the Network is a program that keeps track of the population fluctuations of butterflies throughout the state. Taron became its director in 1989, a position he still holds. His research focuses on imperiled butterflies of the Midwest, and he and the Nature Museum are currently leading conservation efforts around two native butterflies: the Baltimore Checkerspot and the Regal Fritillary.

The Checkerspot recently vanished from Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, where Taron has volunteered since 1982. Last spotted there in 2012, the population probably died off from the combination of extreme weather and a destructive fire in 2013. To begin breeding a new population in the lab, Taron’s team collected female Checkerspots from DuPage County, then raised the caterpillars that hatched from their eggs: there are currently about 800 hibernating on the roof of the Museum. The Fritillary, a formerly widespread prairie species, presents numerous difficulties for captive breeding. Taron is attempting to devise a method that will consistently produce large populations, using temperature- and light-controlled refridgerators which mimic a natural winter.

The Regal Fritillary butterfly, which Taron and the Nature Museum are working to savThe Regal Fritillary, which Taron and the Nature Museum are working to save. (Courtesy of Doug Taron) Though Taron’s work centers on butterflies close to home, the Haven allows him to enjoy species from around the world. With roughly 1,000 butterflies of more than 40 different species from Ecuador, Costa Rica, Kenya, Malaysia, and other countries living in the Haven at a time, there’s a wealth of patterns, sizes, and shapes to observe.

The butterflies are wonderful to watch: the brilliant wings, the slightly alien bodies, the way they unfurl a long proboscis to drink nectar from a flower, the astounding variety. It all inspires a childish awe, which is why Taron believes the Haven is such an important part of the Museum. He views butterflies as “gateway” animals, a fascinating and attractive hook that pulls people to become interested in nature. You are drawn in by the spectacular look of the insects, learn about their unusual life cycle−where they go from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly−, discover that many species require specific plants upon which to lay eggs and feed, and soon you are concerned with an entire ecosystem.

That need for a specific ecosystem in order to thrive informs the process of the butterfly farms that supply the Haven. The farms collect females and provide them with the plants on which they like to lay their eggs. The farmers then raise and feed the caterpillars with specific plants once they hatch, and ship the chrysalides off after the caterpillars become pupae. The Nature Museum purchases 20-25,000 chrysalides a year, 80-85% of which end up in the Haven as adult butterflies. All of this is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in order to avoid an outbreak of crop-feeding caterpillars.

Gold-flecked chrysalides.Gold-flecked chrysalides. (Courtesy of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum) The pupae, available to view behind glass at the Museum, are as striking and variegated as the adults, ranging from gold-flecked butterfly chrysalides to hard, spun moth cocoons. Some of the insects emerge in two to three days, others take months. Every day at 2:00 pm, a Museum staffer releases into the Haven any adults that have discarded their chrysalis, offering information about the species in the process. Amazingly enough, some of these adults, like the enormous Atlas Moth, will never eat. They subsist on fatty deposits built up by the caterpillar, and their whole roughly two-week adult lifespan is devoted to reproducing.

During that short life they will also spark curiosity and joy in the people who wander through the Haven. Taron cites a passage from Vladimir Nabokov−who was a devoted butterfly enthusiast as well as an author−to describe the feelings butterflies can engender. “The highest enjoyment of timelessness−in a landscape selected at random−is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants,” Nabokov wrote in his memoir Speak, Memory. “This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which I cannot explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love…” As Taron said, when such eloquent words have already been written about butterflies, how can you say more?

An adult Atlas Moth, which doesn't eat during its two-week lifespan.An adult Atlas Moth, which doesn't eat during its two-week lifespan. (Courtesy of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum)

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