Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Gorblimey! A Butterfly House!

The word gorblimey (also gor-blimey or gor blimey) originated in Britain in the late 19th century as a vulgar play on the oath “God blind me.”  According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, when used as an exclamation, it’s “an expression of surprise or indignation.”  As an adjective, it means “vulgarly lower-class.”  Finally, the dictionary notes that, early in the 20th century, it characterized “unusual clothing.”  Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8th edition, 2002) offers a somewhat tangled set of usages for this Cockney expression that has a recurrent focus on clothing (hats in particular) defying regulation (military), convention, or perhaps good taste.

I first came upon the word only recently, in a description of the ways in which, since the 19th century, the shells (or tests) of diatoms have been arranged and mounted on microscope slides.  Diatoms, photosynthetic single-celled plankton, generate a breathtaking array of very small, geometrically shaped shells.  Brian Bracegirdle, in his marvelous guide to the (primarily British) world of mounted microscope slides (Microscopical Mounts and Mounters (1998)), notes that “prepared [diatom] tests . . . have been an object of fascination to English microscopists for well over a century.”  (p. 31)  Mounted diatoms have been put to practical and scientific uses – at times in the 19th century, they were employed to test the resolution of the objective lenses of microscopes.  Back then, as well as now, slides with mounted diatoms aided in the identification of diatom species or exploration of diatom diversity.  “Or they can be arranged,” Bracegirdle writes, “as pretty patterns/pictures for either reflected or transmitted illumination, to produce a gor-blimey effect.”  (p. 31)

I’m not sure how Bracegirdle is using gor-blimey in this instance.  Is the effect produced by these arrangements of diatoms vulgar?  Or, is this an effect sparking amazement?  Regardless, when I use gorblimey in this post, I intend it as an exclamation of surprise, the kind of oath I blurt out when I come upon something startling or unexpected, perhaps good (say, a particularly sweet sunset) or perhaps not so good (another day without electricity).

Fanciful arrangements of natural history specimens distress some folks.  In my previous post, I highlighted a microscope slide with an amazing bit of artwork made of fossil foraminifera shells, mounted by Arthur Earland in 1912 as a Christmas gift for Edward Heron-Allen.  In the first decades of the 20th century, Earland and Heron-Allen were among the preeminent experts on foraminifera (single-celled protists).

Michael Hesemann, who runs the highly recommended project website, offered a thoughtful comment on my post in which he criticizes the making of “nice images and arrangements” out of specimens, suggesting it was a 19th century sort of impulse.  He posits that we should “respect nature as it is,” and recognize the importance of these specimens and the evolutionary story they convey which “goes far beyond mere man-made harmony” and surface beauty.

Perhaps I was too dismissive of this point in the response I posted.  Despite how intricate and, yes, beautiful, some artful arrangements of mounted micro specimens can be, I’m more and more inclined to believe they do trivialize the objects of which they are made.  The test is, do they engage the viewer into going beyond the shine and flash, and discovering the science behind them?  I suspect mostly the responses don’t get beyond, “Gorblimey!”

It’s a challenging question to ask of displays, exhibits, or activities involving natural history.  Do they respect or trivialize the objects?  Where’s the education, where's the science?

In recent months, I had my first experiences with those walk-through exhibits of living butterflies and I loved them.  The Atlantis Long Island Aquarium & Exhibition Center in Riverhead, New York, has a butterfly house that captivated us for a couple of hours one weekday afternoon in September.  Given the few other visitors that day, we felt the butterflies were there for us alone.  Armed with pens and the butterfly house’s brochure listing 14 North American species and 18 exotic species (mostly from Asia), we went on a butterfly hunt throughout the exhibit, checking off species as they fluttered by or, as our search images developed, they slowly appeared in the foliage.  Magical.

The following identification of the butterflies shown in my montage above relies mostly on the Atlantis brochure, supplemented by some exploring of the web:

upper left corner – several examples of Paper Kite butterflies (Idea leuconoe)
upper right corner – a Scarlet Mormon butterfly (Papilion rumanzovia)
center middle – a Glasswinged butterfly (perhaps Greta oto, but I’m not sure)
center, a bit lower – a Common Blue Morpho butterfly (Morpho peleides), appears smaller than is
middle left – several examples of Great Egg Fly butterflies (Hypolimnas bolina)
middle right – a Tawny Owl butterfly (Caligo memnon) showing the top of its wings
bottom left – a Polymnia Tigerwing butterfly (Mechanitis polymnia)
bottom right – more Tawny Owl butterflies (Caligo memnon) with folded wings

When one of the exhibit’s curators wandered through and willingly became our guide for much of the afternoon, some of what’s known as the butterfly house industry came into view.  That the array of butterflies featured in the exhibit’s brochure did not fully match the species seen on this day reflects the fact that the stock available from his suppliers is dependent upon myriad factors, including the time of year.  He described a visit to check up on one source of his stock, a butterfly farm in Florida, and mentioned restrictions that limit him to the role of exhibitor, not breeder (for instance, he cannot include flora essential for butterfly propagation in his exhibit).

In a carefully crafted overview and critique of the butterfly house industry, ecologist Michael Boppré and etymologist R.I. Vane-Wright have identified its key components – a far reaching constellation of breeders, suppliers, exhibitors (exhibits), and visitors.  (The Butterfly House Industry:  Conservation Risks and Education Opportunities, Conservation and Society, Volume 10, Number 3, 2012.)  The authors sound an alarm about key aspects of the industry while simultaneously offering a roadmap to an environmentally sustainable and scientifically supportable future.  The discussion below draws from their article.

Though elements of this industry began centuries ago with the trading and collecting of insects, it’s really two recent technological advancements that have made all the difference – instantaneous communication via cell phones and the internet, and the creation of a rapid worldwide delivery system.  These have made it possible to stock and restock butterfly houses within the brief lifespan of butterflies.  It’s a growth industry – butterfly houses and large scale butterfly gardens exist in over 50 countries, the estimated money changing hands with the purchase of butterfly pupae is between $10 and $20 million annually, and more than 40 million people each year visit these houses and gardens.

But it’s a largely unregulated industry that, unless it takes appropriate steps, poses serious risks to the environment and to butterflies.  The comforting vision of myriad mom and pop operations in developing countries generating needed income by securing butterfly pupae while protecting the environment doesn’t hold up, according to Boppré and Vane-Wright.  Actually, small scale breeders who gather larvae and pupae in the wild, or who capture females butterflies in the wild and ship off the generated pupae (practices known collectively as rearing) threaten the continued existence of local butterfly populations, particularly uncommon or rare species.  The sustainable breeding model Boppré and Vane-Wright advocate is large scale, of a size sufficient to cater to the worldwide market and afford to engage in practices that conserve and support local butterfly populations and environment.  This model involves reliance on locally obtained specimens, the periodic release of adults back into the wild, and the periodic refreshing of the breeding stock with individuals from the wild.  These enterprises (breeders and suppliers), they argue, should limit themselves to “industry-suitable, common species native to their own area of operation” and eschew shipment of species to other, potentially compatible regions (e.g., sending tropical butterflies to other tropical regions). (p. 294)

The deliberate or accidental release of butterfly species into the wild by any participants in the industry may spell disaster for biodiversity and for the environment.  “The biological basis of the threat is due to the fact that all butterflies, like the vast majority of organisms, have more or less restricted natural ranges caused by the interaction of history (phylogenesis) and ecology.” (p. 290)  If alien species find a hospitable niche in the new environment, they may disrupt local populations.  I would visit a pox upon that element in the butterfly trade that enables the mass release of butterflies at special ceremonies such as weddings (talk about trivializing!).

Boppré and Vane-Wright posit that, because butterfly species abound with subspecies the possibility that breeding operations will spur genetic mixing is high.  The danger is that breeders will bring together genetically different subspecies (made easier by the fact that genetic diversity is not necessarily manifested in physical differences) that otherwise would remain physically separated in the wild.  If they crossbreed successfully, all bets are off.  “With respect to hybridization, rearing closely related butterflies in an artificial, closed environment represents an uncontrolled experiment.”  (p. 293)

Unless carefully controlled, the commerce in butterfly pupae can also move parasites and diseases into new areas and into populations with no natural defenses with unknown consequences.

It’s not all doom and gloom.  Despite the ecological dangers inherent in the butterfly house industry, it represents an enormous opportunity to foster greater environmental awareness and conservation activism in the millions of visitors who walk through these exhibits each year.  This is the opportunity to move the butterfly house experience from entertainment that trivializes or disrespects these insects to an experience that informs and energizes the visitors for the benefit of the insect.

Boppré and Vane-Wright assert, “For butterfly houses to justify the environmental risks they present, we believe they must engage in effective environmental education . . . .”  (p. 296)  They should take it as their mission to educate visitors about natural systems and about the threats to  butterflies’ habitat.  They should feature outdoor butterfly gardens to support local butterfly populations and to encourage the planting of these gardens.

Frankly, the educational challenge is enormous.  “Although there are rare examples of good educational practice, the educational offerings presented by most butterfly houses are insufficient, misleading, incorrect, or even lacking altogether . . . .”  (p. 296)  In addition to the butterfly house in Riverhead, New York, I also recently visited the Butterfly Pavilion at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.  Its educational trappings are more apparent, but, for the life of me, I cannot remember much of what either exhibit may have intended that I learn about the life history of butterflies or the natural systems of which they are a part.  And therein lies the real challenge.

Assume, for the moment, that a butterfly house fully embraces this mission and features clear, accessible displays or activities that explore the ecological role played by butterflies, the threats to their survival, the nature of the enterprises supplying the butterflies on display, the dangers inherent in the butterfly house industry and steps taken to address them, and the positive roles that visitors might take to support local and foreign butterfly species and conservation in general – would any of that sink in?  Would there be room or time for the butterflies?  Perhaps education would be better served by targeting one or two critical messages.  I was struck by the fact that the Natural History Museum's butterfly house did not, as a matter of course, provide me with any handouts addressing even one of these concerns.  Something as simple as “here’s what you might do to help butterflies in your local community” would be a start.  And that's where the Atlantis butterfly house in Riverhead has taken its first step - its guide to the species on exhibit provides a brief "Butterfly Gardening Hints & Tips."  Though, to its credit, the Natural History Museum does have an outdoor Butterfly Habitat Garden along one side of the building.

The narrowing and targeting of the messages and the fashioning of the educational efforts may be less of a hurdle than simply capturing visitors’ attention.  The very connection that draws people to these exhibits and so moves them as they witness the free flying butterflies may preclude most from attending to any of these educational messages while in the butterfly house.  Besides some take-away material to be read later, away from the butterflies, I don’t quite know how to get over this barrier.  I know from personal experience that, once in the butterfly house, we are spellbound by, and only have eyes for, the beauty around us.


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