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On Exhibit: ambassadors of the insect world

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A group of boys jockeys for position around the open display of delicate chrysalises. One kid bullies forward and extends his index finger to a fallen, newly emerged butterfly. As it rights itself on his flesh he says, "It's a painted lady," and rests it on a leaf. His pals nod, impressed.

"Butterflies bring out the best in people," says Doug Taron, curator of biology at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum's Butterfly Haven.

The glass-enclosed, 4,000-square-foot exhibit offers visitors a chance to witness the butterfly life cycle up close in an atmosphere of endless summer. Gardenias emit their perfume into 80-degree air with 60 percent humidity. "It's a free facial too," says Taron.

Taron left a biotech gig at Amoco to join the museum in its planning stages in 1997. "Butterflies beat DNA," he explains. He got the bug early. "I've been a butterfly enthusiast since I was six years old," he says, recalling forays with his father along the Massachusetts coast, net and field guide in hand.

Since 1989 Taron has also coordinated the Butterfly Monitoring Network, an offshoot of the Nature Conservancy that recruits volunteers to canvass Illinois and count the butterflies they see. Museum visitors enjoy a streamlined version of this experience. "The space allows you to observe butterflies in a naturalistic setting behaving as they would in nature," he says.

Although the butterfly species present are native to the Great Plains, the environment isn't authentically midwestern. "We can't have the temperate plants of Illinois in here," explains Taron. "Those require periods of dormancy which would make the exhibit look bad six months out of the year." Instead the flora includes subtropical and tropical species that the butterflies enjoy but won't lay eggs on, avoiding the horde of chewing caterpillars that would result.

While discussing the vegetation, Taron shoots his arm out and points, distracted by a specimen. "Oooh! A pearl crescent basking in the sun, up on that rock there. Beautiful!"

Toddlers and dowagers coo at the colors landing on their shoe tops and sweaters. The mix of species varies--this day black-and-yellow zebra longwings dominate. By summer, more than 15 varieties should be fluttering about.

Their beauty is the attention grabber. But their metamorphosis is equally compelling. The museum has around 400 pupae a week flown in by UPS from breeders in Miami so visitors can see the transformation anytime.

With a monarch, for example, the shriveled chrysalis sac becomes puffy and translucent, then blackens. The butterfly chews away the filmy pod. The body is at first much larger than the curled wings. Then the butterfly pumps fluid into the wings and they flop out. This is when things get dangerous. Taron says about 10 percent of the specimens don't make it out alive. If the butterfly's grasp on its perch is loose, it can fall before the wings are fully inflated, dried, and toughened. But if it has its feet planted firmly, the drying takes less than an hour and then off it flies. Taron notices a spicebush swallowtail he assisted earlier now flapping heartily. "Oh good!"

Taron says the "coolest" thing he and his staff are developing is an in-house breeding program complete with nonplant food sources for the gluttonous caterpillars. If they can figure out a way to feed them without sacrificing the foliage, they will raise them here.

A pleasant white noise of fans, waterfalls, and piped-in bird chirps fools many into believing the haven is also an aviary. "It's great! Especially the birds," says a man with a Jerry Lee Lewis pompadour. "I see a monarch over there. Rest of them are zebra ones, right?" Not wanting anyone to miss his discovery, the man pulls a couple of tourists over. "See? It's a monarch!"

"Whoa!" shouts a little girl, her arms outstretched toward three buckeyes hovering around her face. "You can't deny they are beautiful," says Taron. "Butterflies make a nice entry for people who don't have a love for insects and biology. They're the ambassadors of the insect world."

On Tuesdays, butterflies are free. Other days, admission is $6 for adults, $3 for children, $4 for seniors and students. The museum is located at 2430 N. Cannon Dr. in Lincoln Park. Call 773-755-5100.

--Joy Bergmann

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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