Museum brings new butterflies to Fermilab

BATAVIA, IL

With butterfly nets and a cooler full of larvae, curators from Chicago’s Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum walked alongside butterfly specialists and onlookers from Fermilab.

“There it is,” said Doug Taron, curator of biology at the museum. Taron excitedly stopped mid-sentence and pointed at the turtlehead plant needed for the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly species to grow.

Fermilab and the museum are looking to introduce the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly into the vast fields of Fermilab in hopes that it can grow and keep the species vibrant.

“This is a really, really beautiful species of butterfly here,” Taron said. “It’s one of the flashier species in the Chicago area.”

Vincent Olivares, director of arthropods at the museum, set the larvae onto the plant as lightly as possible, being sure not to let any fall. Olivares then quickly moved to another area of Fermilab to find more plants in hopes of getting a good spread of the larvae.

Taron explained the species of butterfly is extremely picky in what they eat, so making sure they attach themselves to a turtlehead plant is imperative.

While the species is not officially endangered, their wetland habitat has been shrinking across Illinois. Fermilab is one of the few places where the turtlehead plant now grows.

The larvae will remain on the plant until mid-November, said Tom Peterson, Fermilab’s butterfly expert and a St. Charles resident. If everything goes as planned, the larvae will spin a protective cocoon and emerge as the rare butterfly in June for a few weeks. If things go really well, they hope the butterfly will continue to breed at Fermilab.

“It will take a few years to see what its stability is here,” Peterson said. “We’re hoping it works. We’ve tried to (make) this a habitat for butterflies by planting the (turtlehead) plant. These things take some time.”

Peterson said Fermilab has previously tried to introduce a new species only once in 2002 with the silver-bordered fritillaries butterfly. The attempt did not work.

“Their habitat dried up,” Peterson said. “It didn’t remain here.”

Taron said the museum has been trying to gradually increase the amount of species it tries to help along each summer. There are five species for 2009.

Fermilab features 6,800 acres of prairie, grasslands and woodlands that supports 55 species of butterflies and 200 species of moths.

“Fermilab does a wonderful job of ecological restoration,” Taron said.