Sarah Triplett, an alumna who personifies the growing partnership between the CSU System and Butterfly Pavilion, displays hundreds of butterfly chrysalids at the center in Westminster. 

Photography by Mary Neiberg

With the zeal of a schoolkid, Sarah Triplett opened a cardboard mailer in a laboratory at Butterfly Pavilion near Denver. Inside, she found two small deli containers, one holding several striped bark scorpions; the other, a group of circus beetles.

She admired the two-toned scorpions, then inspected the beetles and explained their unique habit: When threatened, the species stands on its head, abdomen in the air, and spews a stinky chemical.

“They’re pretty cute,” Triplett said, gazing wide-eyed at the black bugs. “I really like these guys.”

The beetles and scorpions, which would join other natives in a Colorado Backyard exhibit, are among thousands of spineless creatures in Triplett’s care at Butterfly Pavilion, a popular attraction in Westminster and the world’s only standalone invertebrate zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. As zookeeping manager and registrar at the facility, Triplett oversees breeding, feeding, housing, and record-keeping for (at last count) 7,290 invertebrates representing 380 species, including butterflies, moths, other insects, spiders, and even marine creatures.

Triplett also personifies an evolving partnership between Butterfly Pavilion and the Colorado State University System. A 2013 CSU graduate in biological science, Triplett became fascinated by invertebrates while taking an entomology course, which she happened into because the timing fit with her daughter’s day care schedule. She then completed an internship at the pavilion, landed a full-time job, rose to a leadership role, and now is helping the two institutions pursue collaborative teaching, research, and public education centered on the creeping, crawling, buzzing, and fluttering little critters on which all life depends.

Invertebrates make up an estimated 95 percent of the animal kingdom, and they serve critical functions: They pollinate the flowers of innumerable plants to produce fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds – providing food for other species and new generations of plants. They decompose dead matter. And they provide a daily buffet for larger animals.

“Every ecosystem is built on invertebrates,” Triplett said, while peering at baby stick insects in the pavilion’s rearing room. “We need to teach people about the importance of these animals and the importance of conserving them, because they’re the basis of the whole ecosystem globally.”

The CSU System and Butterfly Pavilion seek to do just that through upcoming collaborations, said Mary Ann Colley, vice president of science and conservation at Butterfly Pavilion. Already, the pavilion annually offers 46 college internships, which often are held by CSU students. University faculty serve as research associates and advisers for the facility, while pavilion scientists mentor CSU graduate students.

Other joint efforts are on the horizon, with construction of the CSU Campus at the National Western Center, which is set to open in 2022 with year-round teaching, research, and public education focused on food, water, sustainability, and human and animal health; at the same time, Butterfly Pavilion is planning a new $30 million facility in Broomfield for expanded research and conservation work that is sure to provide additional opportunities for collaboration, Colley said.

Pavilion scientists are consulting with CSU to create a pollinator district – designed to attract and provide ample food sources for pollinating insects – at the forthcoming National Western Center. The two organizations also plan to cooperate on a bioblitz, or biological survey of plants and animals, prior to campus construction at the National Western Center.

Meantime, Triplett will continue guiding about 20 college interns per year in research and other projects related to invertebrate care. For instance, her group is developing zoo protocols for reproducing Grammostola rosea, the rose hair tarantula, which is often dubbed “Rosie.” At Butterfly Pavilion, Rosie is a top draw, and the facility has 92 tarantulas filling the role. The docile spiders take turns crawling over the hands of visitors and introducing them to the value of invertebrates.

It’s a source of pride for Triplett that, in the course of earning their “I held Rosie!” stickers, countless children in Colorado and beyond have learned something about the little animals serving vital roles in the ecosystem.

“They know something about invertebrates because we’re here,” she said, smiling.