Hello! I am Stephanie Winton, a conservation biologist from the interior of British Columbia, where you can usually find me in the field studying at-risk reptile and amphibian species, such as the western rattlesnake and blotched tiger salamander. I recently had the opportunity to check out a few conservation projects happening in a different area of BC. I made a quick road trip west to the Fraser Valley where I joined Maja Hampson and her team working on multiple captive breeding, head-starting, and monitoring projects for endangered species. Join me as I plunge into on a fun-filled week of learning with Wildlife Preservation Canada.
Day 1: Lions and tigers and … butterflies? Oh my!
Walking through the Greater Vancouver Zoo before it is open to the public, I follow Michelle, an endangered species technician with Wildlife Preservation Canada and my guide for the day, past a pride of lions watching us languidly, past the tiger, Hannah, who playfully stalks us through the tall grass, along a creek dotted with bright pink flamingos dipping their beaks in the water, and finally to the aptly named conservation corner. This area is not your typical zoo exhibit (three rows of large, covered, black tubs, a greenhouse, and a small wooden shed) and while it may not seem like there is much for zoo visitors to see, I can assure you that very important work is happening here.
Inside the shed is filled with little butterfly hotels. Each hotel houses a handful of male Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies along with a flowering plant. Michelle and I are the hotel concierge today, providing wake-up calls, room service, and check-in. We wake the female butterflies from their cryogenic sleep (they are kept in the fridge to extend their lifespan as adult butterflies only live for about a month after emerging from their chrysalises). We feed each butterfly individually with a honey-soaked cotton swab and must be very careful when feeding one to not let any others escape! Once all the butterflies are wide awake and fed, we check the females into the hotels. Michelle shows me how to distinguish males and females – females have wider, pointier abdomens while males are hairier. Some of the males even have tattoos. These are special markings painted on their wings by the biologists to identify individuals. Finally, we move the hotels outside in hopes that the butterflies will mate, and as we go about other work, we keep an eye on them.
Unfortunately, it is a classic cloudy Vancouver day and the lack of sunlight on the butterflies means we do not observe any mating behaviour. However, a delightful surprise was waiting for us back inside the shed. A female butterfly, who mated five days before, deposited a cluster of little yellow eggs on a leaf of the plantain plant (not to be confused with the type of banana) in her private suite. Success!
This is very exciting as it means that next spring there will be butterflies to release back to the wild population on Vancouver Island and, fingers-crossed, successfully breed the next generation. Michelle will take care of the eggs and the caterpillars after they hatch until they enter hibernation.
Meanwhile, Maja Hampson, the lead biologist on the Fraser Valley projects, has been running an information booth as part of the Greater Vancouver Zoo’s access day. This is a great opportunity for zoo visitors to interact with biologists and learn about the conservation work happening onsite at the zoo. Having the captive breeding and rearing programs located at the zoo is a great partnership. Partnerships are a cornerstone of conservation; the zoo gives back and participates in wildlife conservation through the provision of facilities and resources and our biologists can collaborate with other animal care experts such as zookeepers and veterinarians.