Scientists Hope This Bug Flutters Back to the Windy City | WBEZ
Skip to main content

Eight Forty-Eight

Scientists Hope This Bug Flutters Back to the Windy City

Once, the Chicago region was a prairie ecosystem. That's obviously changed, as flora and fauna have found other homes. But scientists at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum are working to bring back one creature.

In a lab of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, steel shelves hold trays with hundreds of paper cups holding leaves and bugs. The paper cups covered by netting held down with rubber bands…

Olivares: So we've got 100s of cups in here right now on big shelves and each of them have from 3 to 20 or 30 caterpillars in them.

It might be mistaken for a school science project, but work of Vincent Olivares, the museum's director of orthopod collections, is of global importance. The 29-years-old, self-taught scientist breeds imperiled or endangered butterfly species to help restore the ecosystems of Chicago's scant prairie lands.

OLIVARES: Right now we're working with four different types. Silver bordered fritillary, Gorgon checkered spots, Baltimore checkered spots, and swamp metal marks. What we're doing is taking butterflies from those small populations and putting them in places where they showed up, historically lived. The Silver bordered fritillary had populations all over the state but now there are small populations. So we're creating new populations where they once existed but no longer are. Maybe the land wasn't high quality enough. Maybe their plants got pushed away because of encroachment by people.

HILL: Where did you get these caterpillars from?
OLIVARES: The one we're going to look at today, the silver bordered fritillary, we go to a site in Grundy County and we collect the females and we bring them in and in a container, sort of like the one we're looking at now and we set them up to lay eggs on leaves. And as the larvae hatch we put them in cups and put them in their own containers and feed them and wait until they grow into adult butterflies.

HILL: When did you collect the females?
OLIVARES: We collected the females about 1 month ago.
HILL: And how many did you collect?
OLIVARES: We collected nine females. One didn't lay any eggs. One laid a few eggs and another laid tons of eggs.

Right now we have about 1,300 larvae of silver bordered fritillaries, and we have adults who've been emerging, too. So right now we have about 60 adults.

Once the butterfly moms lay their eggs in the Notebaerdt lab, Olivares and a group of volunteers help raise their babies.

OLIVARES: Butterflies go through complete metamorphosis. So, the females lay the eggs on the plants, and the butterfly is particular about what kind of plant it lays its eggs on. So each kind of butterfly has a particular type of plant it needs. And once the females lay their eggs, the eggs hatch after a few days. The larvae grow for a month or two and they make a chrysalis and each butterfly makes a very particular type of chrysalis and it stays in that chrysalis for about 2 weeks and emerges an adult butterfly.

Now, Olivares is the proud caretaker of these beautiful Silver-Bordered Fritillaries.

HILL: What do the butterflies look like?
OLIVARES: The butterflies not large butterflies. They're smaller than monarchs. They're about 2 inches wingspan. And they are gorgeous orange lots of patterns.
HILL What do they look like as chrysalis in this breed?
OLIVARES: If you didn't know what you were looking for, you'd never be able to spot one. They're brown and really well camoflaged and they look almost like a shriveled up dried leaf.
HILL: So we're looking at a chrysalis right now and you're right. It does look like a leaf but it has these little kind of goldie flecks on it.
OLIVARES: There are some gold flecks on the chrysalis that may help it to reflect sun, hide. We don't really know why. But this container is where it emerges. We've got a little q-tip in there so I can feed the adult. They drink a little Gatorade. We keep them in there for a couple days until they're ready to go out.
HILL: Do they have a particular flavor of Gatorade that they like?
OLIVARES: They do. They like fierce melon Gatorade.

We feed the butterflies before packing up their paper cup homes in shoeboxes. The, we head to Markham, where more than 100 acres of high quality grasslands hide in this south suburb.

OLIVARES: Now we're at Gensberg-Markham Prairie. This is one of the biggest of the Indian Boundary Prairies and we should see a variety of butterflies here.

This restored prairie, with a vast scope of genetic diversity, sits just off of I-57. This doesn't look like an important piece of nature.

HILL: Let's go...

Telephone poles and wires run through the land, and the signs for the Mobile gas station and Popeye's Fried Chicken on the next block remain visible here, and houses line one side of the property.

Still, Olivares easily sees the wonders of this place.

Feet walking sounds continue

OLIVARES: We've got a bunch of different prairie plants here, baptizia. We've got lead plant here which is food for one type of moth we hope to work with here called the lead plant flower moth and um, we're going to walk out to the middle so it's a little bit of a trek.

We'll find some violets so we know we're putting the butterflies in the right place and we'll release them.

OLIVARES:  We have some violets turning up. This looks like a good spot. There's a lot of things in bloom and there's a variety, so um some viatras blooming over there and quinine blooming over there and we just got a good area where they kind find things to eat and they have a good selection.

And I see some violets too starting to pop up and if we look down we'll see them in the arrow leaf violets. There's one there and kinda spread around. So I'm just gonna do a scan here of the area just look for these popping up everywhere and that's what we want. So, let's just look around and see if we see enough violets and we're start releasing.

Olivares determines there are plenty of violets to host his silver bordered fritillaries.

HILL: So, now you've opened these shoeboxes up and what are you doing? OLIVARES: They're all moving around and look and look like they're ready so I'm just gonna start releasing a few.

So I'm gonna move around the screen here, the rubber band, ad now you can get a good look at them without a piece of screen. And this is a female, and there she goes.

HILL: Is it hard to say goodbye to these guys?
OLIVARES: : No, it's actually kind of nice to say goodbye because they've been stuck in this container for a couple of days. And they've been ready to go and we hope that they're going to have a nice life here and lots of lots of generations to come. Here's a really gorgeous one. These are primo lab-bred butterflies that we're letting go today. Very good shape.
HILL: It likes me. It's on me. That's ok, it could stay. I've been selected. Is it good luck like ladybugs when they land on you?
OLIVARES: Sure!

And one by one, he lets the butterflies go.

HILL: What do you hope for these butterflies?
OLIVARES: We hope that, first of all that they fall in love. And we want them to mate and start laying eggs all over these violets here. And they'll spend their winter as a tiny caterpillar, like the regal fritillary, and um next year we want to come back and see a whole population of these butterflies. There are so many animals that have had their land taken over by people. And we've wiped out so many animals over time. Think about all the animals that are endangered and extinct And even if we can't turn back the clock and bring back everything, we can take little pieces of nature and help them out.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.

CLOSE X