Travel | Butterfly Rainforest in Gainesville

By Debi Lander

Recently, two of my grandchildren visited and we headed to the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. The museum includes an awe-inspiring Butterfly Rainforest filled with numerous species of free-flying butterflies. A serpentine trail through the aviary passes cascading waterfalls and small bridges over pools with fish and turtles.

Enter the main lobby of the museum and the always popular, giant dinosaur skeleton pulls you in. On the left, the Discovery Zone offers fun, hands-on exhibits where kids and adults engage, unknowingly learning scientific principles. My grandsons loved the microscopes. They put their fingers under the scope and saw the magnification displayed on a TV screen. Nearby, many encased insects or objects were ready for further observation and manipulation. Younger children pretended to navigate a boat model and explore the Gulf of Mexico and its marine life. The curious opened the discovery drawers, while others attempted to assemble archeological pieces like a 3-D puzzle, or looked into a terrarium and an aquarium.

The Natural History pathway weaves through a timeline of Florida’s history, exploring the various habitats and creatures that thrive in the different ecosystems. We strolled through a full-scale mangrove forest and mud flat filled with plants, animals, light and sound. The boys ran ahead into the replica of a Florida cave holding (non-living) bats, fossils, minerals, stalactites and stalagmites. But soon, they found the darkened interior a bit creepy!

Before entering the Butterfly Rainforest, visitors pass several live video cam screens displaying thousands of monarch butterflies in Mexico. Then, guests approach a kaleidoscope of color that simply wows. A massive glass wall showcases hundreds of spectacular butterfly specimens allowing close-up inspection of the colorful wing patterns and designs.

Finally, you walk through a series of doorways (to prevent butterfly escapes), and enter the magical world of the rainforest. Informative signage tells visitors about the habits and life cycle (metamorphosis) of butterflies and moths, known collectively as lepidopterans. Benches are interspersed along the trail so you can sit and leisurely observe. You’ll notice that certain plants attract only specific species. The museum also places food around, such as ripe bananas, to entice the hungry creatures.

Careful scrutiny reveals tiny birds living near the base of plants and trees. I didn’t see these little birds fly, but the airspace bursts with a bevy of butterflies. If you stand still and are lucky, one might land on your head or sleeve.

Daily, at 2 p.m. (more often on busy days) a research student releases newly hatched butterflies and answers questions. When you exit the aviary, you can pass by the lab and see others in various stages of development.

The museum is free except for the Butterfly Rainforest; its cost is $11 for Florida residents or seniors, and $6 for ages three – 17.

You can’t miss the two gift shops; one filled with everything concerning butterflies, and the main gift shop offering science-oriented books, games, puzzles, and toys. There’s a café across the way, and a covered patio with tables and chairs so you can bring your own food. This is a great activity for a rainy day.

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Photo courtesy Debi Lander