Museum of Nature: The carefree flight of the butterflies revealed in exhibition

Heliconius Doris butterfly.

Butterflies, I thought, as I entered a room full of them at the Canadian Museum of Nature, are a wondrous duality of the epic and the ephemeral.

They are so fragile that when you walk into their humid, temporary habitat at the museum, you’re advised to watch where you step, and to “not flick” them if — when — they land on you. (You’re also told to check your person when you leave, as they may hitch a ride on you.) They also have a short life span of, approximately, four days in an egg, two weeks as a caterpillar, 10 days in a chrysalis and two to six weeks as an adult that, finally, can fly.

Yet despite their fragility and brevity, they can complete awe-inspiring migrations. When Monarch butterflies migrate from Mexico to Canada, one generation begins the journey and the next generation ends it. It’s as if you set out for a European holiday, gave birth and died along the way, then your newborn offspring landed at Heathrow, and that had been the plan all along.

Perhaps these contradictions are behind the universal perception that butterflies are free, as popularly endorsed from the classic rock of Elton John (“Sweet freedom whispered in my ear, you’re a butterfly, and butterflies are free to fly, fly away”), to the contemporary edge of Grimes (“There is harmony in everything, it’s a butterfly whose wings span the world” — lyrics that perhaps allude to the “butterfly effect,” a Hollywood-driven concept of chaos theory.) A butterfly citation almost always references freedom, or an intrinsic freedom curtailed. The 1973 film Papillon captured both states, with the story of a wrongly convicted Frenchman who escapes a remote island prison.

Or perhaps we all know butterflies are free simply from the way they flutter about us.

“They seem to fly around without direction and kind of care free,” says Museum of Nature entomologist Bob Anderson. “It doesn’t look like they’re trying to get anywhere, they’re just sort of drifting around the forest and minding their own business. I think that carefree flight attracts people.”

As Anderson says this he becomes a landing pad for a blue morpho, a large species with wings that span perhaps 10 centimetres and are as blue as a summer sky. They’re the most active of 25-odd species of butterflies in the new exhibit, as they race about in clusters through the tropical greenery and assertively humid air.

Oh, what a treat that humid heat was on Thursday morning, as local media crammed in to preview the exhibit and escape an outdoor wind chill of minus 25. Those few moments — before venturing once more, covered in sweat, into that frigid breach of December — were a glorious experience, as tiny wings of red and blue and green and yellow flapped all around. It was an airborne spectrum of delicate colour.

“I keep thinking,” Anderson says, “that butterfly watching is going to take off like bird watching, because a lot of these birdwatchers have gone around the world to see all kinds of birds, and now they’re looking for something else to see and butterflies are perfect. They’re visual, they’re wonderfully photogenic, they’ll stop and sit so you can take pictures.”

The nation of Costa Rica agrees with that potential. It’s the major sponsor of the exhibition, and ambassador Roberto-Dormond Cantú attended the preview. All the butterflies in the habitat are from Costa Rica, shipped in weekly as captive-raised pupae, to hatch into butterflies in public view in a separate exhibit, and they are just a few of 1,300 species that are home in that tiny nation. (By comparison, some 250 species make Canada home.)

The Owl Butterfly is the largest specimen in the exhibition.

The largest species on view is the owl butterfly, with wings that span 17 or 18 centimetres and bear markings that look like owl eyes, an evolutionary trick to deter predators. The smallest is a “glasswing,” a loonie-sized specimen that has transparent wings and is a challenge to find. Hint: look for them perched within the greenery.

There’s lots of opportunity for intimate contact and close-up viewing. Feeding stations abound and can be crowded with a half-dozen species sucking juice from fresh melon and grapefuit. Ice cube trades were full of Gatorade, which contains lots of sugar, which butterflies enjoy. It might seem more appropriate to give butterflies Red Bull, which gives you wings. Then again, caffeinated butterflies would likely be less free than frenetic.

They certainly were free about hitching a ride on human visitors. A Monarch landed on my lower back (I was shown a photo), and my left shoe was inspected by a species named — I’m not making this up — a Grecian shoemaker, who seemed to approve of the workmanship of my Merrill hikers, as he attempted to ride them right out the door, to where he would have instantly frozen to death.

Well, it was his choice to make. Butterflies are free.

The exhibition continues to April 2.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.