Pollinators play a key role in ecosystems around the world, but are under stress due to a number of factors.
One of the nation’s leading research centers into pollinators, and invertebrates, is located just outside of Denver.
Multiple busloads of school children clamor around display cases of invertebrates at the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster.
It’s a major field trip destination for schools across the Front Range.
It features invertebrates of many kinds, from tarantulas to horseshoe crabs.
But as the name implies, butterflies are a central focus, and most of them live in a large greenhouse-like structure called the conservatory.
Dr. Richard Reading, Vice President of Research and Conservation at the Butterfly Pavilion, says there are about 2,000 butterflies of approximately 150 species here.
He says in addition to local education efforts like hosting regular field trips, the Butterfly Pavilion also has programs with international reach.
“We are global, and we have several different entrees into butterfly conservation, one of which is we buy actually all the butterflies you see flying around here from butterfly farms around the globe, and I think there’s 11 that we get them from,” said Dr. Reading.
“And those butterfly farms do a lot of conservation of butterflies where they’re located because it’s obviously in their best interest to protect the butterflies and their habitat. So they’re actually purchasing habitat. They’re providing this sustainable livelihood source for local people, and they sell them to us.”
The Butterfly Pavilion is actually building a butterfly farm in Sumatra, Indonesia.
Dr. Reading says money that’s generated from that project will go to support Sumatran rhino conservation.
“So it’s a way that we can generate money or profit that goes back into conservation. So that’s another way we’re helping,” he said.
The Pavilion is also doing conservation work in Mongolia, where they’re working with five species of endangered butterflies.
Dr. Reading says they’re trying to understand the population sizes, the population dynamics, and habitat needs.
“And then we really want to know if there’s any habitat that’s been unoccupied that we can reintroduce butterflies into so we can increase the population levels of those butterflies.”
Dr. Richard Reading with Mongolian butterfly researchers, Dr. Gantigmaa Chuluunbaatar and PhD student Bayarmaa Duinkherjav at the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, Colorado.
This month the Butterfly Pavilion hosted a small group of Mongolian scientists working on Parnassian butterfly conservation.
As with many other pollinators, the health of these butterflies can indicate the wellbeing of their ecosystems.
Among the invited researchers was Dr. Gantigmaa Chuluunbaatar, Director of the Invertebrate and Avian Laboratory of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences.
“We have six species of the Parnassian genus and then some of them are declining. It’s very important to do the research survey on those species in order to conserve them,” she said.
Dr. Chuluunbaatar says there are several reasons for the decline including harvesting, climate change, drought and overgrazing.
Dr. Reading says it’s important to provide context to the issue of harvesting.
“So people collect butterflies, like they do postage stamps and they trade them around the world. They send them in the mail to other people. And so particularly people from other Asian countries, but not so much in Mongolia, come to Mongolia, over-collect, they collect too many butterflies, so they can trade them for other butterfly species to get a big collection of butterflies, much like people who collect postage stamps do,” he said.
Dr. Reading says there are several reasons the Butterfly Pavilion is interested in helping butterfly conservation in Mongolia.
“Partly because they’re in trouble, and we want to help species that are in trouble. And partly because the landscape of Mongolia is very similar to the landscape of Colorado. So we have the same kind of grasslands in the east, mountains in the west.”
In addition there are species of butterfly in Colorado that are closely related to those that live in Mongolia.
“So we can bring that expertise that we have about butterflies here and bring it to Mongolia. And they have a lot of expertise that they can share with us as well.” he said.
Dr. Reading says this exchange program is supported by the Trust for Mutual Understanding.
“And so programs like this where we exchange people back and forth are really helpful in generating a better kind of esprit de corps between Mongolia and the US, and actually help us do a better job conserving our wildlife, as well as hopefully we’re helping them do a better job conserving their wildlife.”
Dr. Reading says the researchers in Mongolia are also interested in educating children.
Dr. Chuluunbaatar is working with the education team at the Butterfly Pavilion on a children’s book focused on butterfly conservation in Mongolia.
“There’s a similar book that exists (here.) It’s an interactive book where there’s video and pictures and students can use it online, and it exists for students in the United States, and we want to bring that same book and adapt it to the Mongolian culture and Mongolian context,” said Dr. Reading.
“At the Butterfly Pavilion, we’re all about education. Everything we do has an education component. Everything from PhD students all the way down to kindergartners, we want to reach in terms of why butterflies are important and what we should, what we can do to conserve them.”
This story was shared with KSJD via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including KSJD.