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Choose Your Favorite Butterfly GIF

Butterfly Jungle is in full swing at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. You have until April 7 to bask in the fluttery glory, but in the meantime, check out these gifs of butterflies in the exhibit and let us know which one is your favorite. You can tell us in the comments below or tweet it to us at www.twitter.com/sdzsafaripark. Enjoy!

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Butterfly Watching

WOO HOO! Butterflies are back! Spring is in the air, plants are blooming, and I saw my first two monarchs in my courtyard last week!

As a zookeeper, I’ve worked with many species during my career. I’ve always been concerned about wildlife and habitats and how vitally important it is to conserve both, as each is dependent on the other for survival. But when I started working in the San Diego Zoo’s Entomology Department, it really hit me. Working with invertebrates up close opened my eyes to how important conservation, and education, is to our survival…and theirs.

The population of one of my favorite animals, the monarch butterfly, has seriously declined in the last few years. While they get food in the form of nectar from flowers, they perform the critical act of pollination and thus are important for the survival of plants and the potential production of fruits, nuts, and vegetables. The best effort to help this beautiful butterfly comes by planting native milkweed, their host plant, in our backyards and gardens. While it might seem like a small act, each of us really can make a difference.

Behind our Insect House in the Zoo’s Discovery Outpost is a small flower garden containing several plants for attracting butterflies. I had always wished I could do something similar in my own home, but I live in a very small condo with an even smaller garden space. What space I have is planted with a lot of succulents. But last year, I decided a small spot is better than none and planted six milkweed plants in the hope of attracting monarch butterflies. While I didn’t ask, or expect, help from my neighbors, I did let everyone know what I was doing and how important it was and asked all to help “monitor” the new plants.

Within a few days, we had a number of butterfly sightings. We saw females laying eggs on the plants and later on watched as the caterpillars started eating them. What joy at watching all the butterflies alighting on the plants, going from one plant to another! One of the unexpected perks was how excited my neighbors became when the monarchs started arriving. It was quite surprising! Interest really increased when we spotted the caterpillars. Then we started comparing notes on how many caterpillars we saw, and before we knew it we started having “happy hours” to compare notes on our new neighbors. What a blast! Our complex is small, and we all know each other, but having a new butterfly garden created a good reason to actually stop and visit each other. And that led to several happy hours and lots of laughter during the season. But not to be lost in all this excitement is the fact we started a new way station for our insect friends, and I hope this will help increase their numbers.

Regardless of how much space you have, you can help, too. It’s a great teaching tool for children about how important we all are and how important it is to save habitat for our animal friends. If you don’t have any children, you can always have a happy hour with your neighbors.

If you decide to plant a butterfly garden for monarchs, be sure to use native milkweed rather than tropical milkweed, which is lasting longer and longer in our warmer climate and is encouraging monarchs to “stay out too late.” They need to be on their way to an overwintering site by fall, and using a native species such as Asclepias fasicularis ensures the plant dies back after the first cold snap.

I will leave you with the story of the atala butterfly Eumaeus atala. On Key Biscayne in Florida, this endangered butterfly’s range was restricted to the northern end. There was suitable habitat in the southern region, but it was thought to be inaccessible to the butterfly due to development throughout the central portion. The host plant for this species, however, was a favored plant for backyard gardens; enough people planted it to create a bridge for the butterfly to reach the southern edge and new habitat, where it is now established. Thus, the beauty of citizen science and butterfly gardens!

Barbara Boon is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Note: The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation provides native seed, including native milkweed, to interested parties.

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Butterfly Jungle Preview Dinner

It’s no secret that the Safari Park’s annual Butterfly Jungle event is a big draw, and the Hidden Jungle exhibit can get a little, um, “cozy,” during peak hours. Most people agree that the bright, fluttery payoff is definitely worth dealing with the crowds, but if you’d rather avoid them entirely for a special VIP preview of Butterfly Jungle the evening before it opens, and be treated to a delicious four-course meal immediately following your exclusive peek, then you can’t miss our Butterfly Jungle Preview Dinner. I had the honor of attending this year’s Dinner, and I have to say it’s probably the best way to experience Butterfly Jungle.

Our night began when we were ushered straight into the front door of the Hidden Jungle exhibit after a quick Sharpshooter photo (which you have the option of purchasing after the Dinner). This was my first year ever attending Butterfly Jungle, and as soon as we entered the exhibit, it was immediately apparent why people go so nuts over it. It was like walking into a dream—an alternate reality where bright, airy spirits fill the air in the shape of butterflies. Okay, that description was pretty melodramatic, but trust me, it’s an incredible experience. I think I’m even going to use the word enchanting, if that’s okay with you.

Because the Jungle was only open to Dinner guests, there was plenty of room to move around and position myself for prime picture-taking or tree-impersonation in hopes of coaxing a few butterflies to land on me. We also had the option to take a break from the Jungle to enjoy nearby hors d’oeuvres and libations, but as you can imagine, it was hard to tear ourselves away from the exhibit. After an hour of alone time with the butterflies, we were led to the Hunte Nairobi Pavilion for a brief yet enlightening presentation by the Park’s insect keeper, Sarah Jenkins, on butterflies and their fascinating biological nuances. Then it was time to feed our hungry stomachs!

The dinner began with a subtle, buttery farfalle soup with butterfly pasta, a broth of wild mushroom and petite spring vegetables with an herbed Parmesan crisp. It was appropriately mushroom-forward with a nice foundation of earthy, herbal notes to balance it out and ease our taste buds into the courses to follow.

Fresh-cut chicken breast marinated in lavender-infused honey, pan roasted and served over jasmine rice and grilled asparagus with garlic lavender jus

The second course came in the form of a bright, floral berry salad with baby spinach leaves, fresh blackberries, strawberries, and blueberries in a champagne vinaigrette. It was finished off with candied pecans, to harmonize with the sweet notes, and a fried goat cheese medallion to provide a nice, savory contrast to the fresh, crisp greens and berries.

Next came the entree, which was decidedly the star of the show—fresh-cut chicken breast marinated in lavender-infused honey, pan roasted and served over jasmine rice and grilled asparagus with garlic lavender jus. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. There was nothing unexpected or exotic about this dish, but everything about it was well executed. The chicken and asparagus were cooked to perfection, and the rice was the welcome neutral third party to balance the highs and lows. The dessert, a vanilla sponge cake with a layer of raspberries topped with mascarpone  cream and crushed pistachios, was the perfect fluffy exclamation point to the experience.

Vanilla sponge cake with a layer of raspberries topped with mascarpone cream and crushed pistachios

Many thanks to the excellent Safari Park keepers and culinary staff for an unforgettable night of ethereal insects and delightful food and company. If you like incredible dream-like encounters and decadent meals, keep your eyes peeled for next year’s Butterfly Jungle Preview Dinner. If you don’t, check your pulse. You might be dead ;-)

Check out the rest of Matt’s pics from the night.

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Roar & Snore Safari at the Safari Park.

Note: Butterfly Jungle runs through May 8, 2011, at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.