LEHI — Thanksgiving Point has a new addition, and for its tiny winged residents, it's something of a paradise.
"(The butterflies are) pretty much all from the tropics so (we) want to keep it hot and humid," said Zak Gezon, Thanksgiving Point's head entomologist.
Open to the public starting Friday, Jan. 18, Thanksgiving Point's new Butterfly Biosphere allows guests to walk among hundreds of butterflies, see the hands-on invertebrate museum and play in interactive exhibits.
Protected from the harsh Utah winter, the butterflies are able to fly freely, often landing on their human visitors. And Gezon wasn't kidding when he said they keep the biosphere hot and humid — the Butterfly Biosphere stays right around 85 degrees with 60 percent humidity.
"We wanted to feel like you're on the beach in Central America, which is kind of unbearably hot and humid if you're used to a Utah winter," he said.
Because none of the butterfly species living in the biosphere are native to Utah, Thanksgiving Point employees have taken special precautions to keep the insects healthy — and away from Utah's own native butterflies and ecosystem. Due to the risk of the insects becoming an invasive species, the USDA allows the biosphere to fly adult butterflies but not cultivate eggs or hatch caterpillars.
"We probably have 1,200 butterflies flying around right now and if half of those are female they can each lay, like, 100 eggs. … That's, like, 60,000 eggs at any given time," Gezon said.
To stop the butterflies from laying eggs, Gezon and his staff are careful what they plant in the biosphere.
"Butterflies will only lay their eggs on very specific plants per species so we just make sure we mismatch what butterflies we are flying and what plants we have," Gezon said.
In order to keep plenty of new butterflies in the biosphere, Gezon and his staff raise butterflies from pupas — the transition stage between caterpillar and butterfly —they receive in the mail. After the biosphere receives the pupa, they hang them for guests to see in the Emergence Chamber until their metamorphosis is complete.
Only when these small insects emerge as fully mature butterflies can they be released into the conservatory. Gezon said that on an average morning, the employees will release between a hundred to 200 butterflies — anywhere between 50 to 60 different butterfly species.
One of the more common species at the biosphere is the Papilio memnon, a species native to Southern Asia. It also has an unusual nickname — the Great Mormon — which Gezon said comes from its unique appearance. It's an allusion to the practice of polygamy, which was abandoned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1890.
"There's a male butterfly and all the males look the same, (while) the females are polymorphic, meaning there are different color morphs of the females," Gezon said. "It looks like there's a single male to multiple females."
While the Great Mormon will likely attract plenty of local attention, there's a new butterfly in the biosphere's lobby that will catch everyone's eye: a 14-foot wide by 8-foot tall bronze sculpture suspended above patron's heads.
The sculpture, created by Utah artist Dennis Smith, depicts a young girl on the back of a mechanical butterfly. Smith competed against 20 other local artists for the job.
"(Thanksgiving Point) wanted a concept for something that would go in this space and for me, (this sculpture) was just a natural fit,” Smith told the Deseret News. He hopes those viewing his work will imagine themselves as the girl, giving people the chance to "identify with (the work) in a personal way,” he said.
In addition to the butterflies — both bronze and living — biosphere guests can also play with educational games, check out a nature-themed indoor treehouse and interactive areas, as well as play among insect statues that can make visitors feel like they've been shrunk to bug size. The biosphere also offers classes on different species and will even allow guests to hold some of the crawling creatures. Entomologists at the biosphere said they hope the butterflies can serve as a gateway insect to a whole world of invertebrates.
“We try to do a lot of educational stuff, but keep it hands-on, for sure,” said Josh Berndt, Thanksgiving Point's director of communications.
And while the new Butterfly Biosphere has plenty of space and lots of big things to see and play with, Thanksgiving Point community experiences coordinator Lindsey McBride hopes people focus on the little creatures inside.
"The whole purpose is to stop and look closer," she said.
If you go …
What: Thanksgiving Point's Butterfly Biosphere
When: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m., last admission at 7:30 p.m.
Where: 3003 N. Thanksgiving Way
How much: $20 for adults, $15 for children 3-12 and seniors, free for Thanksgiving Point members and children 2 and under
Note: All tickets are for timed entries