Butterflies' survival has Toledo area youths fascinated

12/5/2009
BY JANET ROMAKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Teacher Judy Herr and 8-year-old Gwendolyn Pyle check on the progress of the butterflies in their Whiteford Elementary School classroom.
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<img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/graphics/icons/photo.gif> <font color=red><b>VIEW</font color=red></b>: <a href= Butterflies fascinate Whiteford Elementary class photo gallery " rel="storyimage1" title="Butterflies-survival-has-Toledo-area-youths-fascinated.jpg"/>
Teacher Judy Herr and 8-year-old Gwendolyn Pyle check on the progress of the butterflies in their Whiteford Elementary School classroom. &lt;br&gt; &lt;img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/graphics/icons/photo.gif&gt; &lt;font color=red&gt;&lt;b&gt;VIEW&lt;/font color=red&gt;&lt;/b&gt;: &lt;a href=&quot; /apps/pbcs.dll/gallery?Site=TO&Date=20091204&Category=NEWS16&ArtNo=120409997&Ref=PH&quot; target=&quot;_blank &quot;&gt;&lt;b&gt; Butterflies fascinate Whiteford Elementary class photo gallery &lt;/b&gt;&lt;/a&gt;
Devin Maynard, left, and Carson Webster check out the Monarchs in Space mural that Mrs. Herr's second-grade class created.
Devin Maynard, left, and Carson Webster check out the Monarchs in Space mural that Mrs. Herr's second-grade class created.

Some 173 miles or so overhead, orange-and-black butterflies float in their home-away-from-home, winging along at 17,500 mph.

Orbiting the planet aboard the International Space Station, the butterflies are being watched by earthlings, including thousands of students who in recent days have been monitoring the in-space insects.

And too, students are keeping track of the development of butterflies in their classrooms as part of a Monarchs In Space project.

Yesterday, when students in Judy Herr's second-grade class at Whiteford Elementary School learned two of the three monarchs aboard the space station had successfully blossomed into butterflies, they yipped with excitement and giggled with glee.

Bigger than life, the images of space-age flutterbys spun into view on a tech-savvy white board at the front of Mrs. Herr's Sylvania Schools classroom.

In recent days, students have acted like expectant parents. Nervous. Apprehensive. They didn't know what might happen with the trio of monarchs that left Earth aboard the space shuttle Atlantis in mid-November.

Neither did Chip Taylor, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas. He was concerned that the butterflies just might not make it.

But so far so good.

Progress of the "newborns" can be observed online - and if you don't think this was akin to awaiting a baby, consider the online excited announcement when the first two butterflies emerged: "It's a girl!" at 8 p.m. Thursday, and then six minutes later when No. 2 butterfly emerged, "It's a boy!"

The third monarch emerged late Friday.

Monarch Watch, a University of Kansas-based network of students, teachers, volunteers, and researchers dedicated to study of the monarch butterfly, provided the caterpillars to NASA, along with a special artificial diet.

The plan was for the insects to eat, grow, and go through metamorphosis to emerge as adult butterflies in 17 days while in low Earth orbit.

Monarch Watch is participating in the butterfly experiment at the invitation of BioServe Space Technologies, a center within the University of Colorado in Boulder.

In early November, Mr. Taylor invited 20 schools to participate in the project. The "interest was enormous," he said, and hundreds of teachers responded.

Mr. Taylor is well known through Monarch Watch activities, and in the Toledo area, many residents, including Mrs. Herr, have created certified Monarch Waystations, or habitats, as part of the Monarch Watch's conservation efforts.

Mrs. Herr, who has tagged monarchs for 18 years, teaches her students about the monarch life cycle each fall (she brings in monarch eggs and the students raise the butterflies in the classroom). When she heard about Monarchs in Space, she knew it would be a natural fit.

Because of the overwhelming response, Monarch Watch shipped out almost 600 kits, each containing six caterpillars and the artificial diet, to participating schools east of the Rockies, Mr. Taylor said.

As the caterpillars developed, scientists and students looked at five particular points in the monarch's transformation into butterflies that could be made much trickier in a low-gravity environment:

•Can the caterpillars cling to the surface of their space habitat or might they float?

•Can they find a suitable place to make a chrysalis?

•Will they be able to split their skin when they make the chrysalis?

•Can they hook into the silk pad that supports the chrysalis?

•Can they emerge as adult butterflies and correctly expand their wings?

Among participants is Christ the King School in West Toledo, where a special garden was planted last year to serve as a beacon for butterflies.

"There is a tremendous interest in space. Space is this kind of puzzle for most people," Mr. Taylor said, adding many people are fascinated by the so-called "weightlessness" of space.

Mrs. Herr's students know it as "microgravity." That's what had the kids in stitches yesterday as the butterflies floated about the space station habitat.

"It's funny. You never see any monarch or any butterfly move like that without them flapping their wings," said 8-year-old Hannah Christ.

A Monarchs in Space mural stretches along a wall just outside Mrs. Herr's classroom.

Devin Maynard, 8, said he was mighty pleased to participate in such a project involving so much "thinking and cutting. We got to make the Earth and all these planets."

When the shuttle reached its destination, the "astropillars" were transferred to the International Space Station and put into a little bay, said Mr. Taylor who was on site when Atlantis thundered from the launch pad Nov. 16. It's the first time the species has been in space.

Mr. Taylor anticipated problems with the space-station butterflies emerging and opening their wings because the insects seemed to be struggling some as a result of the low gravity.

Based on past research, it looks like monarchs use gravity to help expand their wings. "Maybe we're over thinking that," he said.

Butterflies in space will be fed through a nectar slot, and likely will live for a few days at least. The habitat will return to Earth in February, Mr. Taylor said.

The Whiteford school monarchs are expected to emerge as butterflies this weekend - not in the classroom, but at Mrs. Herr's home. She also "baby-sat" the insects during Thanksgiving break.

Gwendolyn Pyle, 8, said everyone was surprised to see the space-station-based butterflies yesterday. "The whole class was worried about them," she said.

About whether the monarchs will emerge just fine here: "I have good hopes," she said.

More kits could be sent to schools later, he said. Students could do different experiments to determine the best conditions.

The challenge is what to do with the hundreds of emerging butterflies in the Monarchs in Space classrooms, Mr. Taylor said. They will not be released outdoors.

Maybe there will be a contest, he said, to test the best ways to keep the butterflies alive. Teachers could receive several suggestions on how to keep the monarchs alive, and some of the insects could thrive for a month or two.

The monarchs, for instance, could be fed apple juice, Juicy Juice, or Gatorade.

There was no mention of Tang.

Contact Janet Romaker at:

jromaker@theblade.com

or 419-724-6006.