Natural Wonder

By staff November 1, 2001

Not many people count an emperor scorpion, tarantula, and python among their pets. And it's a fair bet that few Sarasotans number among their colleagues a male corn snake called Mr. Moo or a pair of turtles called Gabe and Gert.

Then again, Tiffany Neal, curator of flora and fauna at G.WIZ, is not exactly most people. She finds a bee sting "kind of exhilarating," wears bug socks to work and has her computer placed at elbow level because she hates to sit down: She's too busy ordering mice for her snakes, spotting caterpillars or holding children in rapt attention while describing the intricate caste system of a beehive.

In fact, Neal's stamp is on each of the 55 species of plants and animals that populate the new Habitat Room at the Gulfcoast Wonder and Imagination Zone (G.WIZ). Opened on Mother's Day, the Habitat is a treasure trove of Florida life forms, with a pond, beehive and butterfly garden in an area the size of an average living room. Although most exhibits tend to showcase flashy creatures such as tropical butterflies, Neal prefers to teach people what they can find in their own backyards, from the turtles and tilapia floating through the waterfall-fed pond to the tree frogs that tease visitors with their camouflage skills.

But the prettiest of her charges are, of course, the butterflies: 15 species, roughly 300 individuals. They are initially elusive; a painted lady shyly flutters onto Neal's shoulder and a phaon crescent hovers in the lip of a flower. A newly emerged monarch dries out its wings next to its previous home: an exquisite chrysalid of porcelain green with a necklace of tiny gold beads. As the eye becomes accustomed to the environment, more butterflies take shape, swooping down from the ferns above the door to perch on walls and the wire mesh lining the windows.

Small children are sometimes initially disappointed at not seeing hordes of butterflies flitting through the air right away, and have to be taught how to sit quietly and wait until one flashes past. "You have to know where to look for them," Neal says. "It's been interesting to see how much an element of surprise is in that exhibit. But," she shrugs, "that's how nature is."

G.WIZ is at 1001 Boulevard of the Arts,Sarasota. For more information, call 906-1851 or visit 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $4 for children 2 and older. From 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. every first Wednesday of the month, admission is free.

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