Butterflies in New York: A Living Exhibition

The Butterfly Conservatory at the American Museum of Natural History is an exhibition where about 500 butterflies flutter freely in a 1200 square foot vivarium. Visitors walk down a narrow hall before entering the vivarium, which is surrounded by a wall full of information about metamorphosis and a general overview of butterflies. This prepares the visitor for the world of lepidopterids that he or she will shortly encounter.

When one finally enters the vivarium, they enter the world of butterflies. The first thing to hit you would be the hot temperature and the humidity.

“I didn’t expect it to be that hot and humid, it was a little uncomfortable since I went during winter and had a huge coat on,” comments Daniel Cao, Aerospace Engineering ’13. However one could probably deduce that the vivarium isn’t designed to make the visitor uncomfortable, but instead the climate is for the butteflies.

Various plants and pretty flowers make up the general landscape of the vivarium. Little pots hang from the top with sponges drenched with sugar water as an alternative to nectar. Fruit bowls with scented oranges and bananas are also placed all around for fruit feeding butterflies such as the Owl Butterfly or the Blue Morpho. There are also huge lights that shine brightly, fading in every morning and fading out every evening, simulating the rising and setting of the sun.

Food, water, shelter and a “sun”? The butterflies live a good life, and to make sure that they do, the museum employs over 110 volunteers to protect the butterflies from the only predators they would encounter, the visitors. There are on average four volunteers in the vivarium at any given time.

Of course, the volunteers also engage the public in conversation about the butterflies and answer any questions. They also teach visitors about butterflies, from their life cycle to their anatomy and basic facts that are intriguing and interesting.

Patricia Kay, who worked as an assistant in living exhibits for four and a half years said, “Our volunteers are vital to the exhibit and stimulate the learning experience.” Overall the volunteers are there to improve the experience of your visit.

One would have to travel very far to see the various butterflies in the vivarium.

“I would have never seen the butterflies I saw if I hadn’t visited this exhibit,” said Mohammed Hossain, Aerospace Engineering, ’13.

Coming from different parts of the world, they are very different in shape, size and appearance. There are over one hundred species of butterflies in the vivarium.

There is a pupae case, displaying chrysalises of butterflies that are from North America. If you are really lucky, you might just get to see a butterfly emerge out of a chrysalis.

“One of the chrysalis was like twitching and moving a lot, I got really excited that I was going to see one emerge but then it didn’t. I was pretty disappointed,” said Hossain, “The only thing I did not like was that they did not show the caterpillar stage of the butterfly,” he adds.

The museum is not allowed to keep caterpillars due to USDA regulations.

“You need a special permit to breed them; also we have many foreign species which can only be bred in their respective countries,” said Kay.

The museum is required to treat dead butterflies as per USDA regulations too.

“We collect dead butterflies daily and bring them in sealed containers to the lab. We have to follow USDA permit conditions for their disposal, they are frozen for at least 72 hours, then as many as possible used for classes in education at the museum. The butterflies that are not used are then further sterilized with alcohol,” said Alison Salzinger, who is also an assistant and has been working for seven years in living exhibits.

A visit to the butterfly conservatory is all about the experience, it’s about leaving with the knowledge about the butterfly that landed on you, or just the butterfly that you picked to be your favorite because it looks so beautiful. So grab your friends, check out the famous dinosaurs, visit the coat check and head on down to the Butterfly Conservatory.

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