Hundreds of exotic butterflies battled for territory and orange slices in a steamy greenhouse during the annual butterfly show at Carleton University’s Nesbitt Biology Building. From Oct. 3 to 12 the public had a chance to see the imported insects whirl in courtship dances and mate on thick tropical leaves. One black-and-yellow pair had been mating all morning, said Victor Malkov, a medical physics PhD candidate at Carleton.
“It’s actually quite nice to have the opportunity to walk in when there’s no-one else here,” said Malkov. “On the weekend it’s just packed, you can barely get through.”
Malkov is educator co-ordinator for the Ottawa chapter of Let’s Talk Science, a charitable organization of post-secondary volunteers who present science outreach activities to schools and the community. Over 40 Let’s Talk Science volunteers gave free weekday tours during the Carleton butterfly show.
While many visitors come for the butterflies’ beauty, these students know there’s more to the fragile beasts than meets the eye.
For instance, Malkov is fascinated by the physics of butterfly flight.
“Their very small wings are shaped just the right way for it to be able to fly properly,” said Malkov. “Many of these butterflies even hover sometimes.”
Carleton neurology PhD candidate Patricia Van Roon and events coordinator for Let’s Talk Science says she always learns something new at the event.
“Last year it was that butterflies have memories of being a caterpillar,” she said. “They taught a caterpillar avoidance behavior, and when it turned into a butterfly it avoided the same stimulus.”
But this year’s fun fact is more relevant to her own research into human hidden hearing loss.
“The Blue Morpho has ears,” she said, pointing out a large blue butterfly. “Yeah, it can hear you.”
It’s this diversity that makes butterflies so great to study, said University of Ottawa biology masters student Rosana Soares. She looks at how habitat loss in southern Ontario affects where butterflies live.
Soares explains that butterflies are one of the first creatures to respond to habitat and temperature changes. That means conservation efforts to protect butterflies will also protect many other species.
“I believe that you can actually save the world by studying butterflies, by seeing how they respond to global change,” she said.