About a year ago my cousin and I visited the vivarium at the American Museum of Natural History – you can read about it here. In an effort to confront my fear of insects (called entomophobia) I toured the natural habitat enclosure which exhibits about 500 live free-flying butterflies and moths from the Americas, Africa and Asia. With only one epic fail, I was nevertheless exhilarated that I was able to get up close and personal to many of these creatures – even though some were not the delicate pretty, harmless looking variety.
This year I decided to take it up a notch and join an after hours nighttime behind the scenes tour of the Living Exhibits laboratories at the museum. Ostensibly access was to be given to the pupae lab where cocoons and chrysalis from all over the world were housed and cared for until the butterflies and moths emerged.
Let me provide you with a little background before we continue. Butterflies and moths go through a life cycle known as complete metamorphosis:
(in an insect or amphibian) the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages.
a change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one, by natural or supernatural means.
The stages of their life cycle include: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The butterfly metamorphosis looks like this:
The moth metamorphosis differs in that the caterpillars spins a lightweight cocoon casing around the pupa. However some moths do not make cocoons but rather pupate underground.
When a butterfly or moth larva (or caterpillar) first hatches from its egg it has only one job: to eat, grow and cast off its old skin (molt) as it grows larger and larger until it is ready for the next stage: to pupate. Once inside the chrysalis and/or cocoon, the transformation takes place and out comes a perfectly formed butterfly/moth. At this stage the insect is wet so the butterfly must hang and dry while pumping fluids into its wings so they will expand. After fluttering its wings a bit, the butterfly is ready to take flight,
We were able to see examples of all these stages in the lab – here are a few pics. The first three are chrysalis pupae while the last two are cocoons:
Luckily, a Madagascar longtail moth had just emerged from its cocoon and was hanging out to dry. The first photo shows the remaining cocoons:
Once dry the butterflies and moths make their way into the vivarium where they can fly freely and gorge on sugar-water. The vivarium had just opened for the season and so there were not too many varieties hovering, yet there were some spectacular beauties, including the Malay Lacewing shown at the top of this post. Others included:
As mentioned in my previous post, there are millions upon millions of butterflies – so many that even my OCD brain said enough – just look, don’t name:
One butterfly was particularly friendly and we became fast friends – although I was sad that it appeared to have suffered a wing injury – which is quite common:
I’m so without fear that I zoomed in for some facial shots:
Now there were new specimens of the creature that destroyed my composure last time – the Atlas moth whose wingspan can grow to 12 inches; however the new arrivals were much smaller and I smugly felt no frisson of fear.
This was last year’s specimen:
You’ve probably already surmised that my smugness was soon to have a reckoning. The lab not only contained butterfly and moth pupa, it also housed other desert and tropical live specimens, Meet the bearded lizard:
Some assorted poisonous but cute tiny frogs:
These animals caused no upbeat to my heart-rate and I enjoyed their “personalities.” However…
I suppose the guide thought she was leaving the best for last – but my heart and stomach had other ideas as once again I met my fear Waterloo:
I could not care less that we were told that this is a particularly docile tarantula whose bite is not too painful. With my heart pounding I did manage to take these photos and then made a hasty retreat towards the exit. “Before we leave, let me show you one more creature,” pleaded the guide. Here is what she wanted us to see :
Try as I might, I could not steady my hands or my pounding heart to get a clear image – this is beyond my control.
I once again and humbly admit defeat.