The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Even the movement of butterflies is affected by supply-chain issues

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Heliconius melpomene, or the Postman Butterfly, in the Tennessee Aquarium Butterfly Garden.A postman butterfly feeds on a bloom in the Tennessee Aquarium’s Butterfly Garden in Chattanooga. At any one time, the garden may host 1,000 to 1,500 butterflies representing more than 200 species. Courtesy Tennessee Aquarium

Butterflies are back at the Tennessee Aquarium after pandemic bottleneck

Some of the Tennessee Aquarium’s most entrancing, cherished residents — and there are literally thousands of them — have been absent for more than a year and a half.

The aquarium has been unable to source butterflies to fill the Ocean Journey building’s Butterfly Garden since early 2020 because of supply chain disruptions.

The butterflies typically originate from Costa Rica. Every week, about 500 butterfly chrysalises — the life stage between caterpillars and full-fledged adults — are delivered to the aquarium. By raising specific plants, Costa Rican farmers can attract butterflies that use the plants as egg-laying sites and feeding sources for their offspring. By collecting and shipping chrysalises to facilities like the aquarium, farmers can earn a reliable income without resorting to destructive agricultural practices that threaten their country’s rainforests.

And just in time for the holidays, the Tennessee Aquarium’s Butterfly Garden will reopen to the public Nov. 5. This warm, light-filled gallery in Chattanooga is once again filled with these jewel-like insects, which flutter in the air by the hundreds.

“They have so many bright colors and intricate patterns that they’re kind of like living works of art,” said entomologist II Rose Segbers. “The butterfly garden is special because it’s completely immersive. There really aren’t any barriers between guests and the butterflies or the habitat.

“You can see everything just like you would in nature, and a butterfly might even land on you.”

Walking through the garden is like being whisked into the steamy, lush wilds of a Costa Rican rainforest. The interior of the gallery is always kept warm and humid — a welcome escape from the cooler, dreary days of autumn — and seemingly every leaf, blossom and branch serves as temporary resting spot for butterflies of every description.

At any one time, the garden houses as many as 1,500 butterflies. These can come from any of more than two dozen species, from cerulean-winged blue morphos to enormous tawny owls with their tell-tale eyespots. 

“You get a lot of variety in here,” Segbers said. “If you come here one week, you’ll see a certain variety of butterflies, but if you come back a week later, you might see completely different ones. It gives people a good excuse to keep coming back.”

The cocoon-like chrysalises can be viewed hanging from racks through a special viewing window in the garden. Their shells often look drastically different from the butterflies within. Who would suspect that the familiar orange, black and white monarch butterfly would come from a gold-fringed, jade chrysalis or that leaf-like pink or green chrysalises are host to brilliant yellow cloudless sulfurs?

Entomologist Rose Segbers pins Blue Morpho butterfly pupae to a hanging tray, where they will hang until they emerge in a few weeks time.Entomologist Rose Segbers pins blue morpho butterfly pupae to a hanging tray, where they will hang until they emerge in a few weeks time. Courtesy Tennessee Aquarium

If they time their visit right — usually by arriving earlier in the day — guests may be lucky enough to see the butterflies in the act of emerging or flapping their wings to dry and prepare them for their first flight. Better yet, visitors can also watch a butterfly release, when newly emerged butterflies are collected and relocated to the gallery.

Guests aren’t encouraged to touch the butterflies, which can be harmed by even the most well-intentioned hands, but with such great numbers of these beautiful insects fluttering about, fingertips, shoulders and even heads often serve as impromptu perches. Those Instagram-ready moments are the kinds of experiences that can leave a lasting impression, Segbers says.

“I think that develops a certain kind of closeness between guests and the butterflies, especially for young guests,” she says. “They may take the good feelings and experiences they have here to their homes, where they can think about how they can enrich their relationship to the butterflies around them. It may even lead to a career in conservation in the future.”

Tawny Owl on guests handA tawny owl butterfly displays a distinctive, yellow eyespot while perched on the hand of a young guest visiting the Tennessee Aquarium’s Butterfly Garden. Courtesy Tennessee Aquarium

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