Butterfly Rainforest, Gainesville - Orlando / Florida Guide
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If you have time to explore Florida, beyond the Orlando area, then take a trip north to Gainesville, visit the amazing Butterfly Rainforest and wonder at the beauty of nature. It is a fascinating place to learn about moths and butterflies, which play an important role as plant pollinators. Because they are very sensitive to the environment they can tell us much about how healthy or otherwise our planet is. The Butterfly Rainforest is located at the Florida Museum of Natural History, which is the state’s official natural history museum. The museum houses exhibitions of fossils, the wildlife of Northwest Florida waterways, the south Florida people including the Seminole Indians, plus Native American Art.
Butterflies are some of the most beautiful creatures on our planet, and seeing these exotic and vibrant Lepidoptera fluttering high above you in a specially constructed 6,400 sq ft. outdoor screened Butterfly Rainforest is an amazing sight. This wonderful exhibition holds between 55 and 65 different species of butterflies amid tropical and sub-tropical plants and trees. It is a permanent exhibition within the Florida Museum of Natural History, in Gainesville, housing several hundred butterflies. These butterflies come from butterfly farms in such places as Africa, Florida, Malaysia, Cost Rica, Australia, New Guinea, Ecuador and Madagascar, to name but a few.
You can take a gentle walk on a winding path through lush foliage and nectar flowers, so essential for feeding the butterflies, whilst around you is the sound of many cascading waterfalls. There are information stations to help you understand the various behaviours of the butterflies you will witness. You will learn what a butterfly is, and what the conservation issues are. You can also take a close look at the life cycle of the butterfly. From its beginnings as an egg, through its larva stage when the hungry caterpillars feed voraciously on their host plants, then on to it spinning a cocoon and becoming a pupa, before its metamorphosis into a butterfly.
But the most stunning exhibit has to be the ‘Wall of Wings’, which showcases thousands of butterflies and moths. There are preserved moths and butterflies arranged in boxes, as well as stunning photographs. The area is 200 ft long and rises 3 storeys high. Seeing so many brilliantly coloured and exotically shaped Lepidoptera takes your breath away. Large plasma screens show films of Lepidoptera from Asia, Africa and the Americas.
The McGuire Centre is a research institute where there is a wonderful opportunity to learn more about these fascinating and beautiful, but delicate creatures. In the collection and research labs you can get a close up look at scientists carrying out research into genetics, and conservation work with endangered species. There are over 4 millions specimens here, and when completed it will house the second largest collection in the world – the largest being the Natural History Museum in London. It is hoped to expand this to 20 million specimens. On the three floors of collection rooms there are about 100,000 drawers and each box may contain as few as 4 large specimens, or as many as 2,000 micro Lepidoptera moths.
By the time you leave you will certainly know that the moths and butterflies are quite similar but moths mostly fly at night. They are often less colourful than their butterfly counterparts, and have feathery antennae rather than the club shaped antennae of most butterflies. It is fascinating to know that moths have a thicker coating of scales than butterflies, making them appear furry. This is because they fly mainly at night so they do not have the sun to warm their bodies for flight. They generate heat internally, by vibrating their muscles, and these heavy scales provide insulation against heat loss. The name Lepidoptera actually means ‘scaled wings.’
One of the saddest facts is that in the wild butterflies tend to live only about 7-10 days. However, some butterflies do not just live on nectar, but also eat such things as rotten fruit. This enables them to live for 3-6 months. Astonishingly, the largest butterfly in the world, the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, has a wingspan up to 30cm, and is poisonous to predators. The Atlas Moth, however, which can be found in the jungles of South East Asia, has a wingspan of 30 cm too, and is sometimes mistaken for a small bird when flying. The smallest butterfly is the Pigmy Blue, at about 1.5cm, whilst the Nepticulid moth is even smaller.
The Butterfly Rainforest is open all year, seven days a week except for Christmas and Thanksgiving. You are allowed to take your camera or camcorder inside so don’t forget them. It is wheelchair accessible, and costs $6.50 for an adult and $3.50 for a child up to the age of 12.
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