Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium is North America’s largest museum devoted to insects and their relatives. Visitors are encouraged to use all five senses as they wander through a mysterious Louisiana swamp and an Asian butterfly garden, while learning why insects are the building blocks of life on our planet.
The first hallway presents a glimpse of life on earth as it was 400 to 100 million years ago. This ancient world was a hot, steamy, subtropical place. While in the ocean animal life was already flourishing, on land it was just beginning.
Early aquatic animals were emerging from the sea and adapting for survival on dry ground. Among them were the ancestors of today’s insects. The first land animals (and first to fly), they launched an amazing era of colonisation which endures to this day.
Long before fossil records date the first insects, other arthropods were firmly established. They were ocean dwellers, from giant sea scorpions called eurypterids, to trilobites, which first appeared more than 500 million years ago.
It is believed that the insect family tree first sprouted from wormlike arthropods that shifted from life in the ocean to life on land. It was a big transition, as early insects had to adapt to new diets and surroundings as they left their watery homes.
While most insects were small like modern bugs, some were giants – possibly due to the link between their respiration and oxygen levels in the atmosphere. Without lungs, insects breathe through holes (spiracles) in their exoskeletons and the air travels through tiny tubes called trachea. In today’s atmosphere, this is an inefficient system for large bodies, but the prehistoric atmosphere had about twice as much oxygen as modern air, allowing bugs to grow larger with longer trachea. This theory seems supported by the fact that these colossal insects became extinct about the same time Earth’s oxygen level dropped.
Within the museum, visitors also learn about the Termites’ Battle for New Orleans. Dubbed Operation Full Stop, this federally funded war began in 1998 under the leadership of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s primary research division, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Uniting government agencies, private organisations, and universities in one of the largest coordinated efforts to control an insect ever undertaken. Operation Full Stop set its sights on the U.S. city most beleaguered by this pest – New Orleans.
Today, experts from across the world have set up headquarters at the ARS’s Southern Regional Research Centre. Their goal is to find new cost-effective and environmentally safe ways to reduce formosan subterranean termite (FST) numbers and curb the devastation caused by this hungry home-wrecker, which costs Americans more than $1 billion each year. An average FST colony contains around one and a half million individuals.
In the next section, visitors learn the difference between frogs and toads before exploring life in a rotten log and the function of wetlands, which play an important role in protecting, purifying and managing aquatic ecosystems.
Wetlands, like Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin, act as natural tubs or sponges, storing water and slowly releasing it back into the ecosystem. This process slows water’s erosive potential, reduces flood heights, and prevents drought by allowing ground water to recharge. Wetlands ‘scrub’ water clean, removing many impurities. Plants and microorganisms absorb or break down dissolved pollutants, including those from fertiliser run-off, animal waste, and sewage contamination. Coastal wetlands protect against the storm surge generated by tropical storms. They absorb enormous amounts of wave energy and water that would otherwise do much more damage inland. For every 1 to 3 miles (1.6 to 4.8 kilometre) of wetlands, storm surge height is reduced by one foot (30.5 centimetres). Wetlands also help to hold together beaches, shorelines and the banks of lakes and rivers that are prone to erosion problems. Soil erosion increases when wetland vegetation is removed or damaged.
Audubon visitors then continue into a room displaying beetles of all shapes, sizes and colours. The late British scientist, J. B. S. Haldane was once asked by a clergyman what could be deduced about God from a study of nature. His response was “an inordinate fondness of beetles”, reflecting the vast diversity of beetles in the natural world. In fact, if you could line up every animal species in the world, every fourth creature would be a different beetle. Beetles embody all the principles of great design – sensational colour, striking patterns and strong functionality blended with artistic flair!
Nearby is a collection of moths. Moths are often stereotyped as small, dull and drab, while butterflies usually get the credit for splendour, however many moths are very beautiful too. Moth species outnumber butterfly species by 15 to one and, in addition to colourful moths and those that fly in the daytime, there are also moths that mimic bees and wasps.
The final exhibit is a butterfly garden, where hundreds of colourful butterflies flutter, swoop and soar past guests, sometimes even landing on them.
- Information provided by Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium