The Leopard Lacewing lights on a visitor’s hand and seems to like it there, spending what would amount to a good portion of its three-week or so lifespan just hanging out.
But don’t feel bad for the colorful little guy who seemed to delight in showing off his lovely tan, black and red wings to several guests at a preview tour of his new, lavishly decorated home in Coral Gables. Soon, there should be about 4,000 exotic butterflies joining him, along with a handful of hummingbirds, rare orchids and tropical plants.
Call it a scientist’s playground. A nature lover’s paradise.
The future of plant science, education and entertainment arrives Saturday at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden with the opening of the $6 million Paul and Swanee DiMare Science Village. The world-within-a-world at the 83-acre Fairchild sprung from grounds that once housed an old maintenance yard. After 10 years of planning and two years of construction, this new nature space seamlessly blends into its two-acre neighborhood.
The village’s four buildings cover more than 25,000 square feet and feature labs, classrooms for college and graduate-level university students, a stainless steel-screened butterfly and hummingbird conservatory that towers about 40 feet, and an expanded rainforest that flows right to the doorways of labs and classrooms.
The latter amenity, says Fairchild’s chief operating officer Nannette Zapata, promises to give university students a window view rivaling vistas seen in lush Hawaii. Already, a class from Florida International University is installed here, rapt in an instructor’s discussion of tropical plant taxonomy. Fairchild Garden director Carl Lewis envisions a nature-enshrouded university campus with 10 scientists, 20 graduate students and 40 undergraduate research students at work and study at the Science Village within five years.
Some are already in place. A room away from the FIU class, as dappled sunlight falls onto his white examining table, Michael Hass, formerly a forensic biologist for Miami-Dade County, grinds Caribbean plant tissue with a mortar and pestle. Hass has traded the study of human tissue for plant tissue but the goal is the same — to identify and learn about life forms with a goal toward conservation of a species.
Zapata points out that the same technology that goes into human genome projects can be conducted with plants. “With the DNA, you can really identify what the plants are,” she says.
“The whole concept is circle of life,” Lewis adds. “We need to understand the diversity of these forests.”
Genetic research, climate modeling, plant propagation and the study of animal life will become an interactive experience for garden guests, “almost in your face” by design, says Lewis. Two-way intercom speakers are mounted along the rock walls of the butterfly conservatory.
Practically everything the scientists will do and say inside the labs will be visible and audible to guests in the conservatory. Gone are the days of men and women in white robes laboring in secrecy.
“Today’s scientists are really about teaching people and engaging people,” Lewis says while standing under an amber Chihuly chandelier inside the village’s new 150-seat glasshousecafé. It overlooks the butterfly and hummingbird home.