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Naturalist Born Thrillers

In the rooftop greenhouse of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, John Watts is a happy man. The 36-year-old entomologist picks up the caterpillar of a zebra butterfly, so named for the distinctive yellow stripes that mark its black wings, turns it over and gently squeezes its rear end. A strong, musky, odor results, a dry, peculiar smell that seems a combination of bitter leaves and insect blood. Not many people would find it pleasant; most people, actually, would find it repugnant. But Watts thinks it's wonderful.

There's much about butterflies that Watts thinks is wonderful. He likes how their caterpillars "hang Js," a term derived from the shape they make when they spin a button of silk and attach themselves to a branch or a leaf or (in the case of the Museum greenhouse) the tops of their cages. He adores how they wiggle out of their skins and prepare to enter into the chrysalis stage, when all of the caterpillar's internal organs except the brain and central nerve cord melt into a protoplasmic soup and are transformed into the angular body and bright wings of a butterfly. He likes the requirements the different caterpillars that metamorphose into different butterflies have: that the monarchs must eat milkweed, and the peacocks must eat lemon verbena, and the julias will only lay their eggs on a certain kind of passionflower vine and how eating only those plants gives them a bitter taste to birds. He likes the way the caterpillars of the giant swallowtail resemble fresh bird droppings. He likes the names that butterfly watchers have given to their favored object -- red postman, lacewing, white peacock, pale cracker, clipper, gold rim, cattleheart, rice paper, southern belle, magnificent owl -- and he likes it that butterflies do not bite, scratch or sting. That last little fact means that butterflies, unlike some other insects, are people friendly. Which is something that John Watts particularly likes, because that means Watts can have an unusual job for an entomologist, one that's more involved with keeping insects alive than making them dead.

That simple truth about entomology, that what an entomologist is fascinated by is often what he kills, is reflected in a Far Side cartoon pinned on a bulletin board near where Watts is working. (Far Side creator Gary Larson, incidentally, studied entomology at Texas A&M). The cartoon shows two collectors in pith helmets in the field with butterfly nets, and one who has made a capture says to the other, "An excellent specimen, symbol of beauty, innocence and fragile life ... hand me the jar of ether."

At the Cockrell Butterfly Center, though, Watts doesn't deal much with ether. He deals more with birthing. Not that death is something he ignores. Since their average life span is only two weeks, the Cockrell butterflies are constantly dying. So as they walk the Butterfly Center's paths, Watts and other workers keep an eye peeled for corpses. Butterflies that are beaten up, crushed by the heels of visitors or eaten by ants are deposited in a designated plastic wastebasket, then sterilized in an autoclave to prevent disease. But the dead butterflies whose wings and bodies are in decent shape go into a large plastic box and are sold to the gift shop, which resells them in wax paper envelopes to people who want to mount them for display. And that is yet another reason that John Watts likes butterflies, and a big reason why the Houston Museum of Natural Science is so enamored of them. Butterflies make money. The Cockrell Butterfly Center is part of a growing business in nature's showoffs. Opened in 1994 and named for Houston oil man and museum board leader Ernie Cockrell, the center generates wads of cash for the Museum of Natural Science. Close to 400,000 visitors a year pass through the center; with ticket prices of $3.50 for adults and $2 for a child, it doesn't take much math to understand a part of the center's non-scientific appeal. Like the IMAX movie theater, the Butterfly Center makes more money than it spends, which helps support other aspects of the science museum. The realization of this is one reason why, across the nation, the building of butterfly centers has become a trend. Denver opened one recently, Durham, North Carolina, has one in the works and St. Louis is thinking about one. In New Orleans, plans for an insect zoo are well under way.

Of the nation's nine most prominent butterfly gardens, the Cockrell is the only one that's multilevel, allowing visitors to see butterflies high in the forest canopy as well as at ground level. Following a short introductory film, visitors enter into a concrete cave that holds a pool into which a 40-foot waterfall cascades. Only a few butterflies hang out at the entrance -- just as there's not much there for the visitor to see, there's not much there for them, either -- but as the visitor ascends a curving stairway to enter the main level, he encounters a huge artificial tree wrapped with strangler vines. Through the grace of tape recordings and stereo speakers, monkeys howl and tropical birds sing. Misting machines spray a fine, ground-level fog. The temperature is kept at a constant near-80 degrees.

 

At ground level, the party erupts. On a sunlit day, hundreds of butterflies will be flitting and basking, feeding on flowers or rotten fruit set out for them in dishes. A sleepy three-foot-long iguana named Carmen rests motionless in a tree, much preferring vegetables to butterflies. There are no natural predators for the butterflies to avoid -- with the exception, that is, of humans. A few months ago, Butterfly Center guards asked a young man to empty his pockets. When he did, they found 14 butterflies.

Not that the appeal is all one-sided. One man whose body chemistry blended perfectly with the Polo cologne he was wearing emitted a musk that the butterflies found completely entrancing, and he was swarmed by them. Visitors to the Butterfly Center that day wouldn't have had to look very far to see the 50 to 70 species from across the world that are on display. They could have stared just a little south of the bemused man's chin at what was described as close to a butterfly beard.

Such displays are rare, but even without them there's plenty to look at. The native monarchs and swallowtails are there, but so are the exotics from the Tropics: petite, solid orange julias; large, iridescent blue morphos, shimmering like taffeta; brown magnificent owl butterflies with their large ringed eyespots. They're eating at food stands, mating on the footpaths and posing for photographs, while toddlers and adults stand and point.

It's John Watts' job to see that they have something to point at. Three months before the Butterfly Center was to open in the spring of 1994, Watts, a thin, goateed man who wears two small leaf-shaped silver rings in the top of one ear, was hired by the center's director. Watts has been drawn to insects since he was a boy. He likes them not just because they are sometimes extraordinarily beautiful, which they are, but because they are so bizarre and complicated. Before coming to Houston, he was at the University of Florida at Gainesville, where he had spent several years raising insects for the experiments of his professors. Watts had earned a master's degree and had decided against going for a doctorate. For one thing, he says, without a trace of arrogance, "I already knew more than most of my professors." For another thing, there were few teaching positions available, so he decided to wait for the perfect job. While waiting, he worked as a research assistant, raising predator insects that could be used to fight fire ants and beetles that might devour the water hyacinths that have become a scourge of Southern waterways.

At UF, Watts specialized in a little known family of leaf beetles, developing a field naturalist's contempt for academic biologists who study only dead specimens. Insects can change color when they die, says Watts, so even very basic information gleaned from specimens can be wrong. Hundreds of thousands of insects haven't even been identified, and very little is known about their behavior. Despite the fact that butterflies are the glamour boys of the insect world, Watts chose beetles for his graduate study in part because, of all the insects in the world, about half are classified as beetles. Watts has amassed a collection of 12,000 beetles and other insects, and he keeps them now in his Montrose apartment, carefully preserved in sealed wood boxes with glass tops called Cornell drawers.

Like many entomologists, Watts is especially fascinated with the phenomenon of mimicry. He pulls out a sample of moths that he caught in an hour by setting up a mercury vapor lamp in a field in Venezuela. "Some of these look like wasps" he points out. "They're very good mimics. This one mimics a winged ant queen."

He turns to his leaf beetles, some of them no bigger than a capital O on a page of print. Some leaf beetles imitate other leaf beetles. Is the purpose Batesian mimicry, in which a good tasting insect mimics a bitter one? But which ones taste good and which ones are bad? Like the 19th-century naturalists he admires, Watts tasted beetles for his research. "To me," he says, "that is science at its purest."

Though his original (and main) passion is beetles, Watts' time at the Butterfly Center has helped him expand his collection. It takes viewing only a few Cornell drawers to realize how systematic and thorough Watts has been. He holds up a huge blue morpho butterfly that he caught on a trip to Ecuador. He captured it by waving a strip of blue Mylar, which the butterfly flew right down to check out. He holds out a tray of hawk moths, which hover around flowers at dusk and look like hummingbirds. There are day flying inchworms that look like lichens and sip mud, and metallic wood-boring beetles from Southeast Asia, green and red with a polka-dotted patch of purple. He shows a rainbow scarab beetle collected in the Richmond area, and even gives the recipe for catching one: "You mix some beer, molasses, barley and pig crap in a coffee can and set the coffee can in the ground. They fall in and they can't fly out or crawl up the steep sides of the can." In an oval frame on the wall is a South American necklace of green beetles. The apartment is fragrant with the odor of the mothballs used to keep pests away.

 

Watts' apartment is only a short bicycle ride away from the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The entomologist may travel, but he doesn't drive. One Friday afternoon, in a triangular workroom curled into the back of the Butterfly Center, Watts worked, unpacking and mounting for display a package of chrysalises from a supplier in El Salvador. The package, like those of his other butterfly farmers in the Philippines, Malaysia, Kenya and Costa Rica, had been flown to Houston by overnight express. Since butterflies only live an average of 14 days in the center, Watts and his colleagues must constantly order exotic butterflies, in addition to the natives they raise in their greenhouses, to maintain a constant population of 2,000. The imported chrysalises are displayed in viewing windows on the center's upper floor, and there visitors can watch the butterflies emerge, unfurl their crumpled wings and pump blood into them. (They can also learn the callousness of nature by seeing the butterflies whose wings remain crumpled after they emerge, and harden in that shape, meaning they can't fly, meaning they die.) When the healthy butterflies are ready to flit away, they emerge through slots at the bottom and top of the display windows. Once they emerge into the center, says Watts, their first activity will not be feeding, but sex.

The chrysalises delivered on this Friday had been packed in a carefully taped plastic box and layered with pieces of toilet paper and cotton batting. Watts peeled back the top layer of batting to reveal five neat rows of smooth, gold ovoids as big as the end of a man's thumb, delicately striped in black, unnecessarily beautiful. These were the chrysalises of the tiger glassywing. Despite their elegance, the chrysalises would be hard to find in the wild, and their golden luminescence would deter predators by suggesting that they could be poisonous.

Watts laid the chrysalises out and sorted the good ones into a clear plastic cup, noting on the packing list how many survived the trip. A chrysalis costs from two to three dollars, and the center only pays for the good ones. Sometimes, butterflies attempt to emerge while in transport, or sometimes they may be hit by a virus. Watts sorted through a layer of blue waves to find that approximately 15 were dead, their chrysalises curled and brown, perhaps a sign of a virus. The good ones are green and occasionally wiggle and jump. Some chrysalises look like bright green leaves. Others look like dead leaves. Almost all the chrysalises are flecked with tiny spots of gold, reflective bits of lipid tissue that are thought to imitate dew drops and make the vulnerable chrysalis appear all the more inert and unattractive to predators. These spots also give the chrysalis its name, from the Greek word for gold. Butterflies emerge from chrysalises; their night flying relatives, the moths, spin cocoons.

"Look," Watts said as he held up a layer of cotton stained blue green, "this is the blood of a blue morpho."

The butterfly -- a representative of the most spectacular of the Butterfly Center's denizens, large insects with iridescent blue coloring on the top side of their wings and brown on the underside, with seven bewitching black and yellow-ringed eyespots -- had had the misfortune to emerge in transit. In the wild, the chrysalis would have been attached to a twig by its silk pad. Had it made it to Houston intact, it would have been transferred to a cork display board and presented on the second floor of the Butterfly Center. Curators used to pin the chrysalises to a string and then pin the string to the display board, but after much experimentation, Watts concluded that the best way to handle them is to glue each one with a dab of clear silicone glue, the same kind used to seal windows.

 

Sorting and displaying the chrysalises is a tedious but not difficult job, and as he worked, Watts grew reflective about the larger implications of studying insects. Earlier in the afternoon, his associate entomologist, Celia Stuart, had brought in a plastic box with half a dozen footlong African millipedes, each as big around as a garden hose and sporting 300 or so legs. She had imported them for a friend. "Aren't they adorable?" Stuart said. Yes, probably, but nonetheless, their first display will be in the crypt of a haunted house at Halloween.

Unfair as that bit of bug prejudice may be, it's nothing new. Butterflies have had the best press in the insect world for centuries. The Greek word for the soul, Watts points out, is also the word for butterfly: psyche. And the Greeks weren't the only ones. The Aztecs worshipped a butterfly goddess who presided over childbirth and death. Watts believes in the soul, he even believes that animals have souls, but he has reservations about some major religious ideas. "In the scheme of creation," he notes, "everything has its place. Just because something is not useful doesn't mean it is any less important. One of my biggest peeves with Christianity is that it says everything was created for our use. And they believe that once they die, they'll go someplace else, so it doesn't matter what you mess up here."

He sighs. Most of the great 19th-century naturalists were religious men. Darwin delayed the publication of his Origin of the Species because he knew the damage it could do to conventional religious thought. Like those early naturalists, Watts has chosen to study not the creator but creation. "To me, things are much too complicated to be created by something else," he says. "I mean, why produce all these bugs that are so much alike?"

He recalls as a boy looking at wild orchids in Florida and realizing that these nectarless plants engaged in an act of deception to attract bees. He experienced then what might be called a spiritual epiphany, that to see nature clearly is to see a network of relationships of plants and animals, of climate and geology. There was something mystical about nature that inspired awe and devotion. "I saw that it was like a web, that everything was interconnected," Watts recalls. "It was wonderful."

In tribute to the early naturalists, Watts twice a year -- at Christmas and the Fourth of July -- dresses up in the costume of an 18th-century gentleman, with knee breeches and waistcoat. He sets up a display of caterpillars in the Butterfly Center and holds court, talking to visitors about his passion. He doesn't put on accents or have a script. He just stands in the artificial jungle, the sun streaming through the glass overhead, the butterflies fluttering, the fake mist rising, and talks. That he is able to do so is something of a transformation. As a boy in rural South Carolina, he was an awkward, skinny kid who wore his older brother's high-water pants and was, he recalls, a "major introvert." But the butterflies have helped change that. And indeed, if you compare the goofy-looking kid of years past to the confident scientist in his blue waistcoat and knee breeches, holding an elegant lace butterfly net, a notion springs to mind: butterflies are not the only species to undergo transformations. Watts himself has undergone a metamorphosis, and become perhaps even better than he imagines an emblem of the creatures he raises.


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