Bach, Beethoven and Butterflies

Jun 30, 2012

Music and Metamorphosis at the Calgary Zoo

Early one spring morning, before the zoo starts buzzing with visitors, Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Mélanie Léonard steps inside the ENMAX Conservatory's Garden Gallery, where the air is warm, the humidity is high and the blooms are bright. Mélanie’s face eases into a gentle smile as a small, pale yellow butterfly lands on her shoulder.

“What a privilege it is to see the butterflies emerge from their chrysalis – it’s amazing that everyone who visits can share this same experience,” says Mélanie, who has always appreciated these intriguing insects.

A Magical Morning Transformation

Come early in the morning and you’re almost guaranteed to witness the magical process Mélanie describes, as butterflies literally unfold before your eyes. Along the western wall of the Garden Gallery, a series of windows house rows of sticks with the butterflies’ extremely compact temporary homes attached. Take a closer look at the chrysalis, which range from bright green to metallic gold, and you’ll see butterflies in various stages of emergence.

"Within five or ten minutes we went from looking at a chrysalis hanging on a stick to a full-sized butterfly."

As Boyd Nave, the zoo’s resident butterfly expert, explains what is happening, Mélanie looks on in awe. “I had no idea that butterflies pumped fluid out of their abdomens into their wing tubes to make them expand. At first, it seemed impossible for them to reach their full size, but it all happened so quickly – within five or ten minutes we went from looking at a chrysalis hanging on a stick to a full-sized butterfly.”

While the process of emergence is fascinating, we only witness one part of the butterfly life cycle in the Garden Gallery. The zoo’s butterflies start their lives on cooperative butterfly farms thousands of kilometres away in places like Costa Rica.

Supporting Cooperative Butterfly Farms

There, local farmers supplement their income by raising butterflies – a cottage industry that encourages them to keep jungle on their property, inspiring conservation at a local level. In these farms, butterfly eggs hatch into tiny caterpillars. Then the caterpillars eat until they grow large enough to attach themselves to branches and form outer shells, called chrysalis. These chrysalis are shipped to butterfly gardens around the world where they complete their transformation into butterflies.

Butterflies, Music and Magic

Mélanie sees a strong connection between the education roles the Calgary Zoo and the CPO share. Just as a child watching a giant blue morpho butterfly flutter inches away from her nose can be connected with nature in a way she never could be by a book or TV show, Mélanie explains that simply holding a violin or listening to different musical styles at an early age can create that same lifelong connection to music.

In her role as the conductor for the CPO’s range of family, education and community outreach concerts, Mélanie hopes to provide experiences that spark children’s creativity and imagination about the world of music in the same magical way the zoo’s animals so often spark a lifelong love of nature.

From the Summer 2012 issue of the Calgary Zoo’s Wild Life member magazine.