Matt Robertson, Senior Keeper, Butterfly Paradise
Matt Robertson joined ZSL straight from school in 1979 and his first job was as a helper in the insect house. After a few deviations over at Bristol Zoo, a stint working with the elephants, and a jaunt around the small mammals department, he was moved over to work on a brand new exhibit at London Zoo.
Matt’s special interest has always been in invertebrates and therefore this relocation to the prospective Butterfly Paradise project proved to be a paradise all of his own.
Butterfly Paradise showcases a vast array of butterfly species in a carefully created ‘walk though’ environment, offering visitors the opportunity to learn more about life cycles, biodiversity and climate change.
The exhibit will be launched this May and Matt explained how the past 11 months have been spent sourcing and cultivating plants and pupae and preparing a delicate environment that balances heating, humidity and lighting:
‘Butterfly Paradise aims to immerse people in what is ultimately an incredibly delicate and complex environment.
The plants within the exhibit took a lot of careful planning as they provide not only a beautiful backdrop to this amazing experience but, more importantly, both nectar and breeding areas for the butterfly and larvae.’
In order to get the planting just right, Matt and the invertebrate team have worked very closely with the Horticultural department at ZSL, who not only supplied a vast amount of specialist knowledge about how plants interact with butterflies, but also did all the actual sourcing and storage until the exhibit was ready for planting.
One of the most interesting aspects of Butterfly Paradise is the ever changing environment that is obvious not only in the development of the flora and fauna, but also in that it illustrates the entire lifecycle of a butterfly.
Alongside the free flying butterflies in the exhibit, there is also a pupae holding room where visitors can see a vast array of beautiful pupae develop and butterflies eventually emerge.
Matt and the invertebrate team are still amazed by this experience, ‘They really are quite breathtaking. The colour and shapes are so diverse, ranging from a shimmering, gold pod right the way through to looking like a dried up leaf.
‘The butterfly initially emerges with a big belly and little wings, but within 20 minutes it has transformed into an iridescent, delicate creature. It really is a joy to see every day.’
The method in which ZSL sources pupae forms an important foundation for the project as a whole.
All pupae come from sustainable sources that support several community based conservation projects. Projects, such as Kipepeo in Kenya, are improving the livelihoods of local butterfly farmers and in doing so are placing a tangible value on the local environment that supports such an industry.
Within the exhibit you can expect to see international species from Africa, South-East Asia and Central and South America; however careful planting around the outside of the exhibit also aims to attract native species to the surrounding area.
Matt explains that it is not only the international species that need protection:
‘The British butterfly population is in decline and in London alone habitat loss has resulted in quite a drastic population decline as wasteland is redeveloped and wild flowers, buddleia and nettles disappear.
This exhibit offers an amazing illustration of the fragility of the wild environment within an interactive and ever changing experience.’
Butterfly Paradise offers a wonderful introduction to the world of species and conservation, is free to all London Zoo visitors and is open throughout the day.