The world’s largest butterfly species, the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing on display in the Cal Academy’s collection

The California Academy of Sciences has the largest collection of biological reference materials west of the Mississippi.  The collection provides a treasure trove of biological information for scientists and researchers studying the natural world.  Of the 20 million specimens housed at the Cal Academy, 17 million are insects within the Entomology Department. Collections Manager Norman Penny gives Science on the SPOT a small peek at The Academy’s vast butterfly collection.  “Butterflies hold a special interest for people,” says Penny, “They’re easily preserved, they’re numerous, they’re brightly colored and they show a lot of biological principles.”

The Academy has a long history studying bugs.  The Entomology Department officially dates back to 1862 but the first insects and arachnids for The Academy’s collection were actually received eight years prior in 1854. By 1900, the collection had grown to about 50,000 specimens. Unfortunately, most of The Academy’s collection was lost in the great fire which followed the 1906 earthquake.  However, The Academy had sponsored an expedition to the Galapagos Islands in early 1905, and when the earthquake struck, the entomology team had not yet returned to San Francisco. Thus, the specimens saved from the fire and the new insects collected by the Galapagos expedition members served as a starter of The Academy’s new collection. Today, The California Academy of Sciences boasts one of the largest entomology collections in the world.

Penny opened the lids of the cases and showed us a variety of beautiful butterflies from around the world.  Bright blue iridescent morpho butterflies from South America glisten as he tilts the case.  We see monarchs and owl butterflies from North America and marvel at the huge Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterflies from Papua New Guinea.  My personal favorite was seeing the California state insect, the Dogface Butterfly.  Once known as “flying pansies,” Dogface butterfly males have bright yellow wings with dark markings that profile a poodle’s head.

But not all of the Cal Academy’s butterfly specimens are pinned in trays.  Some are very much alive!  Each day within the warm mist of the Academy’s expansive living Rainforest exhibit, colorful butterflies flit freely from blossom to branch.  Each week the Academy receives a new batch of living butterfly specimens from the Central American rainforest.  Cooperative butterfly farmers in Costa Rica have obtained special permits to allow them to rear native butterflies and send them north.

This program is actually beneficial to the butterflies and their native ecosystems as it encourages farmers to protect pollinators and the critical host plants in the surrounding rainforest.  Farmers plant host plants on their land to feed caterpillars.  Once the caterpillars transform to pupae some are collected and sent to the Academy.

(click here to see a behind-the-scenes video of the Rainforest biologists in action)

When they arrive, the pupae are carefully unpacked and placed in temperature / humidity controlled chambers where they finish their gradual metamorphosis into colorful butterflies.   Each morning, as new adult butterflies emerge, biologists release them into the Rainforest exhibit.  Their new home is quite suited for them.  Native flowering Costa Rican plants and feeding stations, provide the butterflies here with plenty of nectar and pollen sources to eat.  But biologists also need to make sure the butterflies aren’t too happy. The insects are not allowed to reproduce within the Rainforest Dome.  Hungry caterpillars would make short work of the contained bio-dome plants.

That isn’t the case above on the Academy’s Living Roof.  Here, native plants have been brought in specifically to encourage the whole cycle of life for local butterfly populations. Nine species of native annuals and perennials have been planted, many with specific species of butterflies in mind. Miniature lupine (Lupinus bicolor), California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and Sea pink (Armeria maritime) that produce pom-pom-like flowers, attract a number of native butterflies. California plantain (Plantago erecta) also hosts a variety of butterfly larvae, including the endangered Bay checkerspot butterfly.  And Stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium) produces nectar for the Hairstreak butterfly and the threatened San Bruno elfin butterfly.  Although the famed Living Roof has only been in existence since 2008, a study by San Francisco State University showed that Bay Area native insects are already more prevalent on the Academy’s  roof than other areas in Golden Gate Park.

The butterfly collection at the Cal Academy, old and new, pinned in trays or flying free help us better understand and appreciate the world around us.  As Norm Penny said, “A lot of the biological principles we study are based on the bright color patterns you see.  Scientific study is very vividly displayed on the wings of butterflies.”

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Producers Notes: Cal Academy Butterfly Collection 18 November,2010Chris Bauer


Chris Bauer

Chris Bauer is a Freelance Media Producer with over 20 years experience working in broadcast television; producing sports, history, technology, science, environment and adventure related programming. He is a two-time winner of the international Society of Environmental Journalists Award for Outstanding Television Story and has received multiple Northern California Emmy Awards. Some of his Quest stories have been featured in the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, United Nations Association Film Festival, the BLUE Ocean Film Festival and the Environmental Film Festival in Washington DC. A 5th generation Bay Area resident and a graduate of St. Mary's College of California, his hobbies include canoeing, snowboarding, wood-working and trying to play the ukulele. He and his family live in Alameda, CA.

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