Sunday, October 16, 2011

Butterfly E.R ~ performing a butterfly wing-transplant

Hey ya'll

There are those moments in nature when a apparently healthy chrysalis will inadvertently produce a deformed butterfly, but while these insects generally do not survive, were they to be left to their own devices in the wild, I do believe that there are some things I can do for my babies to give them just that little bit of a chance (however small it may be) of survival upon release in the wild. Note, this is NOT something most vets, much less an arts student would know how to do. I call it "wing-transplants" and it is just one of the weird and outrageous things one picks up after dabbling so long in the arts of butterfly collecting. Under most normal circumstances, such a procedure seems hardly worth attempting. Deformed butterflies are usually problematic in terms of their health and are possibly too weak to survive anyway (a quick trip to the freezer might end it painlessly for them or, if you like, allow Nature to take Her course and place your deformity out in the garden...alternatively you may choose to raise it in captivity but there are some butterflies which object strongly to that and may not feed). Eitherway, if you happen to have extra specimens to spare and an extremely steady hand, you may wish to attempt this.

Step 1. Sedating the butterfly. Sedating the butterfly is not as easy as it seems but one of the best ways to get a butterfly to remain still is by placing it in a cold environment. Not too cold, you understand for that would most certainly kill it, but cold enough anyway for it to become inactive. It takes many trials but I discover about ten to fifteen minutes in the refrigerator at low setting should do this. (conversely if this is your first time you might wish to check back every few minutes or so to make sure you didn't kill it.) If you're not sure if the butterfly is sufficiently sedated, put your hand into its container and nudge it with your fingers. A sedated butterfly will not flutter. Otherwise, it may wave it's antennae at you, feebly, in apprehension, I suppose. If your butterfly flops over on it's side and it's body feels hard, chances are you left it in there for too long and have already kill it. Oh well..

Step 2. Restraining your patient. Assuming that you have not accidentally killed your patient, take it out gently and place it on a surface in a dark and cold room (I usually keep my air-conditioning to a 16 degrees for this) This avoids it getting restless. It is imperative once you remove the butterfly that you begin immediately. Time is of the essence and if the butterfly struggles too much during the procedure, you may accidentally end up killing it! Yeah... I know... so many ways to kill a butterfly, but since when was surgery risk-free anyway? Anyway to restrain you butterfly place weights on either sides of its wings. For larger butterflies I use the handle-end of a pair of opened scissors (simply slot the wings under each handle) but for smaller ones, erasers would do.

Step 3. Remove the deformed portion of the wing. Okay, now here's where it gets graphic and I suppose you might want to stop reading now if you're averse to these kind of things... or not... it's really all the same to me. So yes, remove the deformed/damaged portions of the wing with a very sharp blade. Be careful, not to remove too much (spare as much of an undamaged wing-base as you can!) and only do it one at a time. It is imperative that this is done one at a time. If, for whatever reason, both front and hind wings are deformed, I usually start with the front first. Makes it easier somehow.

Step 4. Attach the surrogate wing. From a dead butterfly of roughly the same size as your patient, remove the wings that are needed. Clip them as close to the base as you can without including the portion of wing that is attached to the body. The important part is, quite simply the strong, radiating vein on the butterfly's wing. Using a very thin brush (such as those for nail art) dab a very thin layer of clear polish (or some other waterproofed adhesive) onto the remaining wing base of your butterfly patient. Not too much, you understand, or the wing would be to heavy to flap, a thin layer would work just fine. Carefully, with rubber-tipped forceps, pick up the surrogate wing and stick it firmly to the wing base. Press them firmly together with the forceps.

Step 5. Repeat the procedure with the other wings. It is imperative that you do this one wing at a time. That way, should the butterfly show signs of rousing from its temperature induced slumber anytime during the procedure, you may move the patient back into the sedating chamber (a.k.a refrigerator) for another five minutes or so before going again. Be very careful about the adhesive you use as they could cause the butterfly's wings to stick together by accident or even suffocate the poor insect if you managed to somehow get some on it's abdomen. To avoid this I suggest dusting the transplant sites lightly with flour (it looks rather unsightly, I know but it prevents accidents, and that's what counts!) Let the butterfly dry by placing it back into the fridge for another five minutes. When that is done, take it outside into the sun so that it may warm up and feed it a sugary solution to give it back it's strength.

Step 6. Release. If you have done the process well, and if the butterfly was not already too weak to begin with, you will have a perfectly capable butterfly (albeit with oddly matching wings) fluttering clumsily about your garden for the next few days of its life.

Anyway, here's a picture of one of my recent patients. She, unlike her sister, did not have the strength to pump enough hemolymph into her wings upon emerging. You might have seen their chrysalids in yesterday's post.

Butterfly, before and after surgery shots. 1. Emerged last night but wing never expanded.  2. Butterfly fresh out of surgery. 3. Butterfly resting on foliage feeding on a drop of sugared water while the sun powered its flight muscles.
Pleased to inform you all that this patient made it. She fluttered away, promptly, after her sister who was also released today into the forest and I'm sincerely hoping that she will live to fly, fight and breed another day.


ichimaru akira said...

erm..I used to operate on mosquitoes, put ice under the dish(operating table), it prolongs the inactive time of the insect

Cyren said...

That is, an amazing suggestion, thank you :)