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Butterflies!

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Although this blog tends to deal almost exclusively with the life and times of bacteria occasionally I find something else that catches my fancy, and over the long bank holiday weekend I visited a wildlife park. Along with the usual big-park animals (giraffes, zebras, very cute monkeys) they also had a butterfly tent. I went in and was absolutely enchanted. As it turns out, I really, really like butterflies.

Although I look loads of pictures on my phone I was too taken with the actual living butterflies to look at what species they all were. Any butterfly-enthusiasts, feel free to chip in!

Although I look loads of pictures on my phone I was too taken with the actual living butterflies to look at what species they all were. Any butterfly-enthusiasts, feel free to chip in!

It wasn’t a particularly large space, but it was packed full of butterflies, fluttering around at every level. I’d seen a few butterflies on nature walks, including the nice pale blue ones that live on the chalk, but never so many species so close up before. These butterflies weren’t all wild ones painstakingly caught one by one, they were grown inside the butterfly tent. In one corner was a large rack full of hanging chrysalises, which was equal parts amazing and rather creepy to look at. It was a butterfly hatchery, and around it were a few bedraggled looking butterflies that had just crawled out and were trying to dry off their wings.

The chrysalis rack! All different species were just hanging next to each other, as you can see by the different sizes and shapes.

As most people know, butterflies have an interesting lifestyle. The female lays eggs, which hatch out into caterpillars. The role of a caterpillar is to gain body mass and all the necessary biochemical molecules it needs for life, which it does by eating. Continuously eating. Most caterpillar species will eat exclusively one type of plant (which causes problems for conservation) although if they are seriously starving they will also eat other caterpillars. Once big enough the caterpillar then forms a chrysalis; a hard outer coating that surrounds the caterpillar’s innards as they rearrange themselves into a butterfly. The butterfly then hatches out of the chrysalis in a beautiful literary metaphor and staggers around until its wings are dry before flying away.

Two recently hatched butterflies, hanging from the chrysalis

Until getting myself lost in butterfly-related research, I’d always assumed that the actual flying butterfly was a small stage in the lifecycle, but it turns out that butterflies are more robust than I’d assumed. Most butterflies last around a month after hatching, however some can last far, far longer. Monarch butterflies in particular as some generations must migrate to warmer climates in the autumn (from the USA). The migrating butterflies can survive up to eight months in order to travel across the world. How they know where to travel, given that the last butterflies to make the journey were four generations ago, is a bit of a mystery.

Back to bacteria next week! In the mean-time, however, I might have to get a book on butterflies…

S.E. Gould About the Author: A biochemist with a love of microbiology, the Lab Rat enjoys exploring, reading about and writing about bacteria. Having finally managed to tear herself away from university, she now works for a small company in Cambridge where she turns data into manageable words and awesome graphs. Follow on Twitter @labratting.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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