New video shows transformation of rare NW butterfly

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.

The Oregon Zoo is a service of Metro and is dedicated to its mission of inspiring the community to create a better future for wildlife. Committed to conservation, the zoo is currently working to save endangered California condors, Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits, Oregon silverspot and Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies, Western pond turtles and Oregon spotted frogs. Other projects include studies on black rhinos, Asian elephants, polar bears and bats.
The zoo relies in part on community support through donations to the Oregon Zoo Foundation to undertake these and many other animal welfare, education and sustainability programs. The zoo is located five minutes from downtown Portland, just off Highway 26 at exit 72. The zoo is also accessible by MAX light rail line. Visitors who travel to the zoo via MAX receive $1.50 off zoo admission. Find fare and route information online or by calling TriMet Customer Service at 503-238-RIDE (7433).
General zoo admission is $10.50 (ages 12-64), $9 for seniors (65 and up), $7.50 for children (ages 3-11) and free for those 2 and younger; 25 cents of the admission price helps fund regional conservation projects through the zoo’s Future for Wildlife program. A parking fee of $4 per car is also required. Additional information is available by calling 503-226-1561.

Media contact: 

Hova Najarian | 503-220-5714 |