As a child, all one needed to keep occupied was a butterfly and a path on which to chase it.
Sadly, a butterfly in Philadelphia seems a rare sight indeed.
However, thanks to Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, a childlike curiosity in these delicate insects can be renewed with a trip downtown.
The Academy of Natural Sciences, which boasts 17 million specimens of plants, animals and other organisms, is home to “Butterflies,” a live exhibit that allows nature-lovers to walk through a habitat filled with the colorful bugs.
According to Jason Weintraub, an entomologist at the Academy, the exhibit was launched in October of 1996, and was initially supposed to be on display for only six months.
However, the exhibit was so well received – it is now the Academy’s second most popular – that it has been on display ever since.
The habitat is part of the larger effort to conserve rare species of Lepidoptera – an insect order that includes butterflies and moths – in both Costa Rica and Malaysia.
In addition to coming from these two countries, the Lepidoptera living in the habitat also come from farms located in Africa.
According to Weintraub, the newest members of the exhibit come from Southeastern Kenya.
The Academy receives all their Lepidoptera from these exotic locations, and does not do any on-site breeding.
According to Weintraub, the Lepidoptera are shipped to the Academy in pupae or chrysalis form about every other week.
The Lepidoptera found in the exhibit are said to be much larger than any seen on North American soil. (Some of the critters have wingspans of over six inches.)
Housed in a tropical rainforest setting that mimics their natural habitat, the exhibit is home to between 50 and 80 such Lepidoptera.
As visitors walk through the live habitat, they can observe Lepidoptera courting, flitting around, puddling (that is, sucking salt from damp sand) or sucking nectar from hibiscus blossoms.
Some visitors might even have the privilege of having one of these bright insects land on them for a moment.
Visitors are also advised to wear warm-weather clothes when they go to the habitat, as the Lepidoptera require a warm, humid temperature in which to live.
(According to Weintraub, an ideal climate is a temperature in the mid-80s with a humidity of about 80 percent.)
In addition to just observing the Lepidoptera, visitors will have the chance to learn about butterfly conservation, as well as the importance of Lepidoptera to rainforest conservation.
According to Weintraub, the practice of farming Lepidoptera for educational exhibits and botanical gardens – which are becoming increasingly popular – provides an economic alternative to non-sustainable uses of tropical rainforests which could include “slash and burn” agriculture or a one-time harvesting of trees.
While the benefits of clearing the land are short-lived, the farming of Lepidoptera is a process that can be repeated.
In addition, this process educates farmers and their communities about rainforest conservation.
It is this integral combination of Lepidoptera and conservation that is the central message that “Butterflies” hopes to communicate to visitors.
“We want to educate people about butterfly biology and rainforest conservation and the link between the two,” said Weintraub.
The Academy of Natural Sciences, located at 1900 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy, is open Monday-Friday 10-4:30, Saturday and Sunday 10-5. Admission is $9 for adults.
For more information, visit www.acnatsci.org or call 215-299-1000.
Alix Gerz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.