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The Butterfly Effect

With more than 10 million specimens of butterflies and moths from around the world, the Florida Museum of Natural History’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the University of Florida is the most active lepidoptera research center in the world. It is arguably also among the fastest growing collections, adding about 200,000 specimens per year.

Jaret Daniels, one of the center’s curators and past program director, describes the collection as a “repository of life on Earth” that allows scientists to study patterns of biological diversity and track changes in the natural world over time.

Like the proverbial canary in a coal mine, the insects can provide clues about the future and the impact of everything from pollution to land use to emerging agricultural pests to climate change. They also can serve as valuable tools for conservation planning. Imagine, for instance, that three pieces of land are under consideration for conservation and only one swath will be protected. All else being equal, the property that’s rich with moths and butterflies will likely be rich with other plants and creatures. “They’re a model group for tracking environmental change and ecosystem health,” says Daniels. “That’s what makes the collection valuable.”

Fluttering Oasis

Attached to the center, the 6,400-sq.-ft. Butterfly Rainforest is filled with free-flying butterflies and birds, fish, turtles and plants. To keep the population at around 700 to 800 insects, the center receives weekly shipments of butterflies from farms as far away as Ecuador, Tanzania, Costa Rica, Kenya and the Philippines. The creatures travel during their pupal stage of development, which is the transition phase when a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly or moth. They typically live for between two to five weeks inside the exhibit.