One of my favourite things about working for Wildlife Preservation Canada is the hands-on action I get to take in the race to battle wildlife extinction. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to travel to Vancouver Island where I was submerged in one of the last wild populations of the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly in Canada. It was an awe inspiring experience to find myself surrounded by this beautiful species, whose survival is on the brink, and to know that I am taking positive action in their recovery. Although there are very few populations of Taylor’s checkerspots left in the wild, I was lucky enough to come upon a kaleidoscope (the official term for a group of butterflies) and it seemed everywhere I looked there was a Taylor’s checkerspot basking in the sun or drinking from a nearby wildflower. Not an experience I will be forgetting any time soon!
The butterflies have a very short flight season, however, and I knew I had a very small window of time to do what I needed to do. I was there to capture female butterflies, place them in temporary housing with their preferred host plant, in hopes that she would be so kind as to lay some eggs.
Easier said than done! First of all, don’t let anyone ever tell you that catching butterflies is easy! Cartoons from my childhood made it seem like a fun and rather effortless activity. In reality, it involves a lot of patience and hand-eye coordination. Therefore, every butterfly caught comes with a great feeling of achievement. Once caught, we would transfer the butterfly to a small, translucent container where we could identify them as either male or female. How? Male butterflies have skinnier abdomens that come to a blunt end, whereas females have a more robust abdomen that comes to a point. If it was a male, we release it right away. If it was a female, we set her up in her temporary housing. We crossed our fingers and hoped she was carrying fertilized eggs and felt like laying that day (very scientific, I know).
Thankfully, our efforts were not in vain. A generous female gifted us with a beautiful cluster of yellow eggs. The process of laying took her about 40 minutes, as she released each egg individually, where they stuck to the underside of the host plant’s leaf. With much gratitude, we released her back into the wild at the same spot we found her. The eggs are now being housed at the Greater Vancouver Zoo, along with other clusters laid by captive bred females (remember all those furry little caterpillars?). Now, we patiently wait while the eggs develop. If all goes well, we will soon have many new caterpillars to care for. These caterpillars will then spend their winter hibernating at the zoo and will be bred next year in a continuation of our captive breeding program for the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly. Stay tuned!