Deep Connections Keep Partnership Between Augustana and Butterfly House & Aquarium Flying

Augustana University and the Butterfly House & Aquarium (BHA) in Sioux Falls have a deep connection based on research and community engagement. Home to marine life and butterflies from around the world, the Butterfly House & Aquarium offers Augustana students and faculty unique experiential learning opportunities in the middle of the prairie, but the BHA also learns from their work.

“For us to have the Butterfly House & Aquarium in our state is pretty amazing. We have colleagues across the country that run aquariums in larger cities and on the coast, and they think we’re crazy to have an aquarium in the middle of South Dakota because there’s so much work and expertise that goes into taking care of these exotic species, something like a tropical butterfly or tropical fish and coral. They require specialized care,” said Butterfly House & Aquarium CEO Audrey Otto '03.

Through volunteer work and internship opportunities over at least the last decade, Augustana students have had opportunities to conduct research at the Butterfly House & Aquarium on topics such as the color preferences in tropical and neotropical butterflies, coral growth under conditions replicating climate change and impact of lighting conditions on the foraging behavior of neotropical butterflies. One student even created educational books on butterflies that are used for educational purposes at the Butterfly House. 

“We did a research project with the nursing department and they measured the blood pressure of everyone when they first came in and then after they went through the exhibits — we saw everybody’s blood pressure went down. So, there’s a lot of different ways we can partner to show the value of our organization and facility,” Otto said.

Trinity Atkins ‘23, who is majoring in biology and environmental studies at Augustana, was able to study both butterflies and marine life at the Butterfly House & Aquarium.

“I did an ecology internship in the conservatory last summer and an aquarist internship in the aquarium last fall. I’m now a husbandry volunteer in the aquarium department,” Atkins said. “I hope to do research in conservation biology, focusing specifically on marine and tropical environments.”

Atkins described her experience at the Butterfly House as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and said “there are very few opportunities to study tropical and marine organisms in the Midwest.”

“Most college students can’t afford to study out of state or abroad,” Atkins said. “The Butterfly House gave me the opportunity to learn about these different environments while staying close to home. Lots of people don’t understand the importance of smaller, less appealing organisms like cockroaches, but my time at the Butterfly House helped me develop a better understanding of why these organisms are important for the ecosystem and why we need to protect them.”

But, Augustana students aren’t alone in taking their research to the only public saltwater aquarium in the Dakotas and one of only a few butterfly houses nationwide open year-round. Along with six other colleagues, Augustana Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Carrie Olson-Manning recently completed research at the Butterfly House & Aquarium involving butterfly mating preferences, which was published in the international journal of behavioural biology ethology.

Augustana’s Director of Sustainability and Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies Dr. David O’Hara taught a course on ocean sustainability and ethics class this past semester, focused on the evolution of cephalopods.

“My students were able to learn about them and go see them,” said O’Hara, thanks to the Butterfly House & Aquarium. 

O’Hara took his students to observe the aquarium’s dwarf cuttlefish, which are cephalopods. They had the opportunity to observe the cuttlefish communicating with people by making eye contact, approaching the glass and waving their arms as they changed colors. 

“It’s entertaining, but you’re also experiencing the connection that we, in this prairie state, have with the oceans in the world, tropical forests in the world,” O’Hara said.

The Butterfly House & Aquarium’s CEO is also well aware of the importance of experiential learning. Otto ‘03 earned her bachelor’s degree in biology and sociology at Augustana. Before obtaining her master’s degree in environmental education, she was a keeper at the Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls. In 2011, she stepped into her current position.

“The Butterfly House & Aquarium reminds us of our connection to the ocean — our river flows there with our city's waste, and all our seafood comes from there. All of this knowledge is something we want to share with the community, especially as we have young kids and young adults who are figuring out what they want to do when they grow up,” said Otto. “Whenever they finish up their research, we share it with the staff and guests. It gives us that much more insight into the behaviors of the animals that we take care of.”

Frequently recruiting staff from across the nation, Otto said she wants youth locally to realize they don’t have to leave the city or state to be a marine biologist or take care of tropical butterflies. She knows it starts with these experiences.

“That’s really what we want to be for Augie, is one of those jumping off points for the students so we can inspire them and give them more of those opportunities that are going to help them get excited about nature and conservation, and then, also help them figure out how they’ll best serve the world when they’re graduating,” said Otto.

And, the connections between the organizations don’t end there. Otto serves on Augustana’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) Board. She and a veterinarian visit campus to ensure all federal laws are followed when it comes to the care and ethical treatment of animals. In turn, several Augustana faculty members serve on the Butterfly House & Aquarium’s Board, including O’Hara and Andrea (Miller) Smith.

“What floors me about becoming part of this community is how far reaching the influence of this network is and that it’s always delightful and surprising to see what alumni are doing and the impact of what our education has on so many aspects of life,” said Smith, Augustana’s director of project management and facility services.

Now that the Butterfly House & Aquarium plans to expand their aquarium and classroom space beginning in the spring of 2022, the two are hoping even more opportunities can take flight. 

O’Hara said, “People want to experience this attraction. Whether students are involved in animal care and husbandry, customer service, grant writing or business operations, there are many points of contact between Augustana and the Butterfly House & Aquarium. The mutual benefit is enormous and pretty remarkable.” 

To learn more about opportunities provided by the Butterfly House & Aquarium, visit

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