Sweating (and appreciating) the small stuff

A Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly chrysalis

Michelle Polley recently relocated to BC to work as an endangered species technician with WPC Lead Biologist Andrea Gielens and the Taylor’s Checkerspot Recovery Program at the Greater Vancouver Zoo. Her job involves operating the Taylor’s Checkerspot Recovery Program, breeding and raising these endangered butterflies for release into the wild. She shares some background, and amazing photos, here.

While I’ve raised butterflies and moths before, this will be my first time facilitating butterfly breeding. In order to have the highest chance of success I’ve tried to immerse myself in the details of the species, and have been amazed by the many small wonders that these insects perform. There are many people who have worked with this species before me, and so I’ve put a lot of effort into learning what I can from them, along with my first-hand experiences with these animals.

At this moment, the Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies (TCB) are mostly in their chrysalis form. Soon they will eclose (emerge) as adult butterflies, and it is my job to make sure that they successfully breed – producing the offspring that will go on to help their species survive.

 Each day brings something new to learn about or see first-hand. Here are some photographs of “small stuff” I’ve captured using microscopes, that give some insight into these tiny animals.

Each TCB chrysalis takes on a breathtaking icy blue colour after a day or so, and has visible outlines of structures of the adult butterfly – such as the antennae, eyes and wings. A close look reveals even more amazing structures – such as the spiracles or “breathing holes” along the abdomen.


Another small wonder is the cremaster – the structure that allows the chrysalis to hang while it develops. The cremaster is a collection of hardened, hooked structures that act like Velcro – attaching the end of the chrysalis to a mess of silk fibers called a silk button. Even more amazing is the fact that the silk button was created by the animal while it was a caterpillar, in preparation for its transformation into a chrysalis!

The last close-up I’d like to share is of the wing of an adult Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly. The wings of butterflies and moths are covered in minute scales. You may be familiar with them if you have ever seen “dust” on your finger after touching a moth or butterfly wing. This dust is actually tiny scales that give the wing its colour and pattern, and provide “lift” for flight. Some scales are small and rounded or wavy, while others are long and resemble hairs. Scales are attached to the wing surface that, without scales, would be transparent.

Thank you for sharing in my enthusiasm for the small stuff! I’m sure there are many “small wonders” to come in this season of working with these endangered animals, and I am excited for each and every one of them.