New video shows transformation of rare NW butterfly

May 11, 2017 - 3:25pm

Photographer's time-lapse sheds light on imperiled checkerspot's development

In March, Oregon Zoo conservationists helped release more than 1,200 zoo-reared caterpillars on prairies in central Washington, bolstering populations of the imperiled Taylor's checkerspot butterfly where some of the region's best habitat remains.

But another 165 caterpillars stayed at the zoo — a "rear guard" of sorts — to complete their transformation into adult butterflies in safety and produce more caterpillars for release next year.

This controlled environment has also given conservation scientists a unique look at something rarely witnessed in nature. Pupation — the moment when a caterpillar transforms into a chrysalis — is almost never observed by humans.

On Tuesday night, zoo photographer Michael Durham captured what is believed to be the first-ever time-lapse video of this critical moment in the Taylor's checkerspot's transformation, the third of its four life stages.

"He caught a truly magical moment in this insect's life," said zoo butterfly conservationist Julia Low. "When a caterpillar pupates, it literally reconstructs itself. All its molecules turn to liquid, and it transforms completely to become a butterfly."

Though once abundant across the inland prairies of the Pacific Northwest, the Taylor's checkerspot has now lost 99 percent of its grassland habitat to succession, agriculture and urban development. The species is listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and, according to Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, is in imminent danger of extinction. The Oregon Zoo has raised more than 23,000 checkerspots for release since joining the recovery effort in 2004.

The Oregon Zoo is a charter member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Butterfly Conservation Initiative, a collaborative effort among nearly 50 zoos and aquariums. The zoo works in partnership with and receives funding from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Joint Base Lewis-McChord and its Army Compatible Use Buffer program to rear checkerspots and release them into the wild. Additional project partners include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Xerces Society and the Sustainability in Prisons Project administered through The Evergreen State College and Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women.