Backstage at Safari Park's Butterfly Jungle

Thousands of pupae, shipped via FedEx. Thousands of flowering plants, selected by hand and replaced the minute they start to fade. More staff hours than anyone wants to think about. Like the butterfly's transformation from lowly caterpillar to winged beauty, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park's installation of its annual Butterfly Jungle exhibit is a labor-intensive journey that starts in humid solitude and ends in a flurry of riotous color. When the Butterfly Jungle opened in the Hidden Jungle Aviary on Saturday, March 11, the bird- and plant-filled space was bursting with flowers in peak bloom and filled with more than 30 species of butterflies, many of them exotic visitors from Central and South America. It looks like magic, but there is a method to it. From the sweaty demands of the pupae room to the delicate business of the morning butterfly wake-up call, here is a backstage tour of the Butterfly Jungle. Watch out for hitchhiking Nymphalidae! Butterflies 101 Due to overwhelming demand, this year's Butterfly Jungle will be open from March 11 through April 23, its longest run ever. Also, the Safari Park will be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. during Butterfly Jungle season, giving you some extra viewing time. (The jungle itself closes at 5:45 p.m.) The exhibit is included in your Safari Park admission, but priority-viewing upgrades are available. Check in at the Lorikeet Landing booth for information. With some 8,000 butterflies cycling through the aviary during the exhibit's six-week run, there is never a shortage of splendor. But if you would like a little elbow room to go with your swallowtail sightings, you'll want to stop by early before the human hordes materialize. Just not too early. "The butterflies take awhile to wake up," said lead horticulturist Keith Thomas, who spends many mornings in the aviary putting in new plants before the exhibit opens for the day. "When we get here, they are just starting to wander around looking for something to eat. They want it to be warm and bright in here before they really start moving." For maximum fluttering action, sunny days are better than gray ones. To increase your odds of a close butterfly encounter, exchange your goth black or fashionable fatigue for a bright shirt or hat. Orange, yellow and hot-pink are particularly popular. And make sure to check yourself for stowaways in the mirror strategically placed at the exhibit's exit. Most of these beauties are not native species, so what lives in the Butterfly Jungle needs to stay in the Butterfly Jungle. Their circle of life Before they were eerie Giant Owl butterflies, vivid little Grecian Shoemakers or sky-blue Common Morphos the size of your hand, the butterflies in the Safari Park's jungle were pupae in a FedEx box. When a caterpillar is full grown, it forms itself into a pupa (also called a chrysalis), the little pod in which the caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly. Beginning in late February, the Safari Park gets weekly shipments of pupae from butterfly farms. In accordance with USDA regulations, the boxes are unpacked inside a sealed case in the park's pupae room, just to make sure no hitchhiking non-native parasites take up residence here. In the wild, pupae attach themselves to tree branches. In the Safari Park's pupae room - where temperatures are kept in the high 70s and humidity is at a butterfly-friendly 80-plus percent - the pods are pinned inside emerging boxes, where they go about their magical metamorphosis in peace and tropical quiet. "People always say butterflies hatch, but they don't," said Don Sterner, animal care manager for the Safari Park's bird department. "They emerge. It is not hatching. The pupa is not an egg." The butterflies stay inside their emerging boxes until their wings are dry and flight-ready. Then they are released into the exhibit. The butterflies that are still alive when the Butterfly Jungle closes will be shipped to the Tucson Botanical Gardens, where they can live out their remaining days, hours or minutes in the Cox Butterfly and Orchid Pavilion. "Once they emerge, they live an average of a week or two," Sterner said. "They go through their whole lifespan in a very short period of time." Welcome to their jungle The inhabitants of the Butterfly Jungle don't ask for much, really. Just warm sun, balmy air and a boatload of perfect, nectar-rich flowering plants. Make that two boatloads. And no buds, please. "Last year, we went through 1,800 one-gallon pots and about 300 hanging baskets. This year, we will easily top 2,000 plants, plus the baskets," Thomas said, as he filled a standing planter with pink and red Pentas and other floral booty. "We want as many blooms as possible on the plants. We don't care about buds." Nearly every plant is hand-selected during the three nursery runs the horticulture staff members make every week, and the plants are replaced once the blooms are spent. Thomas and his staff switch out plants three times a week. All plant maintenance - switching, watering, fertilizing - has to be done before the exhibit opens at 9 a.m. Most popular plant? Probably the Pentas, which are loved by the butterflies for the tiny plentiful flowers that are the perfect size for the petite butterfly proboscis feeding tube. (Fun proboscis fact. It is not hollow, like a straw, but absorbent, like an efficient feeding sponge.) Most fragrant? The heliotrope, which will remind you of your grandma. Most likely to attract iPhone-wielding humans? The dazzling ranunculus, which Thomas uses less for their fragrance than for their Instagram-ready colors. Best decorative item? The Angel's Trumpet tree, whose giant blooms are too big for butterfly feeding, but the perfect size for butterfly napping. It is one of the jungle's most popular sleeping spots. Best flower-related consumer news? We'll let Thomas fly with that one. "Pretty much everything we use here you can buy at Home Depot." The verdict Their lives might be short, but the appeal of the Butterfly Jungle's...
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