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Watching Butterflies Dance in Aussie Sanctuary

August 27, 1989|MARTI GERDES | Gerdes is a free-lance writer living in Portland, Ore

KURANDA, Australia — Walking into the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary here, visitors find an unusually large number of brilliantly colored butterflies that are so tame they alight gently on clothing or even skin.

It's a feeling similar to stepping into a 3-D movie. Tiny flashes of color flit toward spectators, pause briefly, then dance away in every direction.

The seven-acre complex, 25 miles northwest of Cairns, offers the opportunity to observe hundreds of tropical butterflies in their native habitat.

The sanctuary's 130,000 cubic feet of flying space makes it the largest such shelter in the world. Paul Wright, its founder, financier and developer, designed the aviary, he says, by "taking a leaf out of the Japanese garden concept."

He was refering to the walkways that meander through the sanctuary's rain-forest landscape. Each path is screened from others by rock formations, creeks, waterfalls and verdant foliage.

The vastness of the shade-cloth dome ensures the well-being of two of the world's most spectacular butterflies: the Ulysses and the Cairns Birdwing.

But you can see up to 35 varieties here, including the Blue Triangle, Orange Aeroplane and Fluro-green Birdwing, names as colorful as the insects.

Groups of 10 to 15 visitors are escorted by a butterfly expert. As the guide talks about butterflies, about 350 of them flutter about the aviary, landing momentarily here and there, then veering away beneath the dome's dappled light to whatever colorful objects attract them--a bright red jacket or a pink shirt, for instance.

With four independently movable wings and unidirectional vision, a butterfly has incredible flying ability, Wright said. Because of its hemispherical eye shape and because each eye has 3,000 lenses, a butterfly can see forward, backward, up, down and sideways . . . simultaneously.

And it can fly any of those directions spontaneously. This highly evasive flight proves life-saving when it comes to predatory birds, which a butterfly easily can outmaneuver, according to Wright.

These flying abilities also make the butterfly courtship dances interesting to watch.

"See the boy chasing the girl?" Wright asked while pointing out a Cairns Birdwing pair. "It goes on all day long. The female lives for about five months, the boy lives for about two. So the male Birdwing does nothing but chase the female."

The sanctuary also shows visitors how butterflies hunt for food. Nearly all butterflies feed on nectar from certain flower species, sucking the nectar through a tonguelike appendage called a proboscis.

Rather than get into the flower-growing business, Wright spent two years developing artificial feeders.

While researching colors for the feeders, he discovered that butterflies see into ultraviolet light and some even see into infrared light, which means that the world, to a butterfly, is much more brightly hued than to a human.

"A flower that's very pretty to us fluoresces brilliantly in the ultraviolet end of the light spectrum," Wright said. "It's like a little beacon telling the butterfly, 'I'm over here.' "

The next hurdle facing the sanctuary was predators, primarily spiders and parasitic egg wasps. To combat spiders, Wright introduced the McCleay's honeyeater, a small but tenacious bird.

To hamper the wasps, the eggs of the female butterflies are collected daily; if they weren't, the egg wasp would use the butterfly eggs to incubate its own eggs.

The collected butterfly eggs are used in the sanctuary's breeding program. All of the sanctuary's butterflies are bred here and nearly all are native to the Kuranda area.

"If you have a massive loss in here, you can go literally out the back door and get more," Wright said. With that in mind, four of the sanctuary's seven acres have been set aside as a habitat preserve.

The sanctuary's breeding program has a 20% success rate, compared to the 1% rate in the wild.

Wright said that of the more than 300 eggs the female Ulysses lays in her lifetime, only one will become a butterfly. The rest are killed by parasitic wasps or, if they make it to the caterpillar stage, fall prey to spiders, mantis, tree frogs and birds.

To re-create a rain forest the sanctuary needed canopy trees, shade for the butterflies to get in out of the sun, water and lots of rock. The latter is critical because butterflies can't control their internal temperature and rely on rocks for heat during winter.

Before the sanctuary opened, the interior was a bare hillside of clay without a blade of grass. Now the area is a lush wildwood of moss-covered rocks, tall grasses, trees and ferns, including the King fern, which can grow to 45 feet wide.

Massive boulders are scattered about, though all but one are artificial.

While the flight aviary is the sanctuary's centerpiece, the complex also includes an air-conditioned, dehumidified museum that visitors enter directly from the aviary. The museum features displays of the most exotic butterflies.

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