The Oregon Zoo is working to save an endangered northwest butterfly.
Over the past two weeks, Oregon Zoo conservationists have roused more than 3,500 Taylor's checkerspot caterpillars from their winter dormancy.
The tiny larvae were then transferred to "wake-up chambers," where they have been eating voraciously, according to zoo butterfly keeper Mary Jo Andersen.
For the eighth year in a row, the zoo's butterfly conservation lab has successfully reared thousands of checkerspot larvae, making significant progress in the effort to save the endangered insect.
One of the most difficult tasks is feeding the ever-munching larvae, which require vast quantities of specific plants. Thanks to the zoo's horticulture department, the checkerspot caterpillars are able to feed on one of the plants their species eats in the wild, the narrowleaf plantain.
The Taylor's checkerspot butterfly is listed as endangered in Washington state and is under review for federal listing. Oregon does not include invertebrates on its list.
While the butterflies themselves are small, they are important pollinators and have a big impact on their ecosystem, according to zoo staff.
Next week, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife plans to release most of these well-fed caterpillars on prairies in central Washington, where some of the region's best checkerspot habitat remains.
The caterpillars will finish developing in the wild, first turning into chrysalides and then hatching as adult butterflies. After eight years of working to grow the number of endangered checkerspots, Andersen says the effects are visible.
"Biologists are now documenting Taylor's checkerspots at sites where they've been absent for more than a decade," Andersen said.
Around 150 of the caterpillars were not scheduled for release and will finish their transformation at the zoo. Adult butterflies will then breed and lay eggs to start the process all over again for next year.
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