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Blog At the Museum

MLS Mailbag No. 6

Hello and welcome to a regular feature on in which I take your questions about the Museum of Life and Science and answer them in mailbag form. Hopefully, the final product is insightful to some degree, and we have a little fun along the way!

What do you do with the fruit that grows in the Butterfly House? — oceanwolf88 on Instagram

As you stroll through the Magic Wings Butterfly House, you’re probably mostly checking out the winged creatures and the insane variety of plants that provide them shelter. But you may have missed that the Butterfly House is also home to several fruiting trees that do produce, well, produce!

This was news to me, so I was excited to take your question to Butterfly House Director Uli Hartmond.

“We offer it to our partridges in their food bowl and put it out on the trays to feed our butterfly species that use fermented fruit as part of their diets,” Uli said. “Our staff has even sampled some of the ripened fruit, and occasionally have served them to our guests during special events.”

Uli said that our papaya tree has been especially productive this season and has grown way more fruit than butterflies are able to consume. Since papaya is infamously quick to turn once ripe, the Butterfly House and Insectarium staff made lovely papaya smoothies. Nothing goes to waste!

We need to work on our papaya portion control.

The golden apple (aka ambarella or June plum) can also be found in our conservatory and is a relative of the mango. Its fruit is hard even when ripe, and while it does get picked at by the BFH birds, it’s not necessarily a favorite. However! The golden apple is a pretty popular part of many cultural cuisines, such as in Central America, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia, and the BFH staff have been known to share with curious culinarily-minded guests.

One last thing from Uli:

“If you want to smell, touch or sample any fruit you see, just ask our staff and they may be able to let you have a piece…”

Noted, Uli. Noted.

So most of the animals at the museum are native to or found in North Carolina, but how do the lemurs fit in? — Kelsey

Great question, Kelsey! Before we get to the ring-tailed lemurs, let’s touch on one quick thing.

If you count the many, many species in the Magic Wings Butterfly House and Insectarium (and we do), the Museum is revealed to be home to a lot of non-native creatures. Furthermore, looking around the Farmyard, our domesticated pals are quite exotic too! That fact sent me down a rabbit hole, but we can save it for another time (submit Mailbag questions here).

With the exception of Carolina Wildlife and the Butterfly House (which highlight species native to North Carolina and tropical varieties of Lepidoptera, respectively), geography isn’t our primary way of developing exhibits. For example, Explore the Wild is designed to invite visitors to step into the shoes of wildlife biologists and encourages them to use all of their senses as they experience the habitats. And here’s where I finally answer your lemur question (“Oh, thank GOODNESS.” –Kelsey, probably).

You’re right that the black bears, red wolves and many wetland residents are native, and that lemurs (and radiated tortoises) are not. Many of North Carolina’s native species are more solitary by nature, nocturnal (active during night hours) or crepuscular (active during twilight), which doesn’t always provide the best during-museum-hours experience for our budding wildlife biologists. Buuuut…

“Primates, even prosimians like lemurs, are much more social in nature, and the lemurs are diurnal, or active during the day,” Sherry Samuels, the Museum’s senior director of animal care, said. “Having primates on habitat fills a niche that the native critters don’t, so they are wonderful animals to have here for guests to see.”

If you’re not charmed by these sunshine-loving, sweet potato-eating, matriarchal Madagascans, TRY AGAIN.

The Museum is continuing to develop Explore the Wild into a more conservation and urban ecology-focused exhibit — zeroing in on coexistence, sharing land and resources, urban ecology, global preservation of animals and habitats, and building human awareness and empathy. Lemurs fit this niche as well!

And let’s not forget, we have some of the world’s leading experts in prosimian science across town at the Duke Lemur Center. How could we not partner with them and add ring-tailed lemurs to our community here?

How many milkweed plants have you put around the grounds this year? — robkeehner on Instagram

Spring has sprung and warm-weather flora is flourishing, including our milkweed population! Over the coming weeks, 200 new milkweeds will take root around campus, joining the 20 current plantings outside the Magic Wings Butterfly House.

“The milkweed you see across the Museum has been planted throughout the years to provide nectar as food for pollinators,” Manager of Horticulture Bobbi Jo Holmes said. “It is also the only food source for Monarch caterpillars. With the Museum’s current plantings, and the incorporation of flower beds along the Museum’s Pollinator Pathway, we add in as much diversity of nectar plants as possible.”

A path for you, a path for pollinators!

By planting native flowers like milkweed, pollinators (think butterflies, bees, beetles, etc.) have a greater chance to enjoy the food they’re used to eating.

“We do also incorporate non-native flowering plants, as they are considered supplemental food sources and give the garden spaces longer flowering times and more overall flower diversity,” Bobbi Jo said.

Keep an eye out for all the blooms and activity around our Pollinator Pathways this year!


That’s all for now, y’all! I hope you will join me next time for more questions and more answers.

If you have a question you’d like answered are foaming at the mouth for Round Two of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (GO CANES!), you can drop us a note here.