Zoo Watch: Fancy a flutter on the butterflies?

A butterfly perched on a clipboard at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo. Photo: ZSL Whipsnade Zoo.

A butterfly perched on a clipboard at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo. Photo: ZSL Whipsnade Zoo. - Credit: Archant

Alex Cliffe works with fish, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo. He has worked in zoos for almost 20 years with a wide range of animals, including one job as a shark-diver!

One of the pleasures of working at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo has been helping to build and maintain the beautiful, tropical Butterfly House. It’s been a great success with visitors since opening a few years ago, because families can get up close to the butterflies all year round. Some lucky visitors even have butterflies land on them! Of course, it’s nice for all of us to escape the British weather sometimes, but to see caterpillars munching on the plants and trees, while butterflies emerge from their chrysalises right in front of your eyes is something really magical.

It is quite a jungle in the Butterfly House and we have to constantly cut back the foliage, especially the huge vines, which can grow a foot in a day! They are very thirsty too, and some days we can add up to two tons of water in the Butterfly House each day to keep the plants and trees quenched!

This week, we did our Annual Stocktake. Of course we keep track of the numbers all year round, but once a year we do a special annual audit and send the start-of-year figures to be shared with other zoos around the world via a database called Species360, where it’s used to help manage the worldwide conservation breeding programmes for endangered animals. At this latest count there were 320 butterflies of 24 different species.

Counting the butterflies can be quite a challenge and we often find as soon as we have finished counting, more are emerging, so it’s a constant job to monitor how well they are doing in the exhibit. We have to be very careful to constantly keep a close eye on numbers, as some species of caterpillar can chew through incredible numbers of leaves. The owl caterpillar for example, can chew through an entire banana leaf in no time, so we have to keep a close eye on them or we wouldn’t have any plants left! The author of The Very Hungry Caterpillar knew what he was talking about!